More Dialogue Tomorrow, March 21.

This month started with the coming together of the community through the True/False festival. And tomorrow we will continue to discuss thoughts on community at this month’s Community Commons. Whether you want to share the joy of celebration, the need to work together to strengthen community, or concerns re infrastructure, we invite you to join your neighbors and share what’s on your mind.

Community Commons
Tuesday, March 21, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

What Could Help Us Move Forward?

I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts. – Abraham Lincoln

The City of Columbia has the following mission: “To serve the public through democratic, transparent, and efficient government.” To judge by comments made during our forums, the City is falling short of this mission, in part by not bringing citizens “the real facts” on difficult issues.

Participants raised a number of ways in which the current decision-making process is undermining trust, discouraging public engagement, and failing to move us forward. Consider the following comments at the November 15 Community Commons.

“Facts seem to be more and more elusive in the political arena.”

“Local control seems to be less and less. We need to engage more to ensure the people are aware and involved.”

“Feels like the car is being driven by someone other than us.”

“‘Bias’ in system is to keep people in their slumber.”

These can be added to comments from past forums :

“City asks citizens for input and then doesn’t do anything with it.”

“People want to be informed.”

Convey to the public the goals, the process, the outcomes.”

“Even when there is good information that contradicts the angry public conceptions on a topic, our council repeatedly fails to point out that information and argue against incorrect viewpoints.”

The list of 7 priorities for 2017, recently released by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, also raised concerns with our current system. The final priority listed was “Encourage the city council to abide by the voters’ will on ballot measures and vote to respect those outcomes.” One of the projects referenced was the stalled transmission line.

Participants also identified a number of ways that current processes could be improved. This included new approaches to how issues are discussed, better education on decision-making systems, and improved follow-through on decisions made. Each of these is discussed further below.

  • Adopt new approaches to how issues are discussed: 

Ideas generated under this category included the following:

+Promote better understanding by better separation of the facts, the interests involved, and the trade-offs among options.

Participants during the November 15 Community Commons discussed past posts on the transmission line  that were titled “Information and Misinformation.” Some stated that “everyone is selective about what facts they choose.” Others stated that engineering and certain other types of information  reflected realities that cannot safely be minimized or ignored. As the group observed, part of what drives the selective use of certain data is different interests -particularly conflicts between the interests of those who might be directly affected by the installation of new infrastructure, and longer term community interests in “the common good” associated with things like adequate electricity, sewer capacity, and roads.

When arguing over ” the facts”, we can lose sight of the real issues like: Do we want the lights to go out? Who will be accountable if they do? What are the risks (unintended potential consequences) of acting or not acting and are we willing to live with them? How, if at all, might we compensate those who take losses because of a broader public good?

Under this option, when discussing or making decisions, council members would be encouraged to unpack and separately address the information they are relying on and why (or additional information being sought and why); the long-term and short-term interests involved and how they are being weighted, the interactions and intersections between issues (e.g., economic development or housing values and new infrastructure), and the values or principles being used to guide decisions. This approach could help citizens better evaluate the available information, and the consistency of decisions being made.

+ Provide “deeper dives” on key issues and information, and earlier outreach to those who would be directly affected by new infrastructure.

Here again, referencing the transmission line, participants pointed out that no-one likes surprises and surprise was one element in the opposition that developed during the public hearings on pole placement.  One participant provided a resource on “geographic democracy” as evidence that new approaches are needed as the population changes.

+ City Council statements to be made on issues before public comment. Citizens would be better able to make good use of their limited time for public comment at council meetings if City Council members would first discuss their current thinking on an issue.

+ Use more citizen friendly scheduling: A consistent suggestion has been to hold more meetings for public comment, to hold them during days and early evening to accommodate different schedules, to align those with when public transit is running, and to publicize meetings and other opportunities for public comment in multiple ways that are likely to engage the public.

  • Provide better education on systems

The process for making decisions is frequently unclear to citizens, and information is difficult to access. Suggestions here included:

+ Use info-graphics: Developing clear, accessible, and easy to read “info-graphics” explaining key systems.

+Use technology to summarize and inform: Make better use of technology, including providing short video summaries and updates on key issues or a weekly 20 minute television program with updates on key issues.

+ Teach while entertaining: Create a humorous show like “The Office” that helps highlight how city government systems work.

  • Implement new processes to improve follow-up and follow-through

A number of suggestions were made to improve the way we make long term decisions. These included:

+ Create, disseminate, and archive summary reports on key decisions. Create an “executive summary” type decision report form.  Information to be provided might include purpose, information sources, interests and trade-offs, key assumptions, and the decision made. This document would then be available for review throughout the life of a project and contain links to key documents like Council minutes or staff reports. Updates could be created as information is updated or circumstances change, and kept along with the original report.

+Raise the threshold for re-opening key decisions previously made. Establish a set of findings the Council needs to make before pausing/ending a project that has been funded and voted on by the public. Also the Council might be required to  establish a clear date for when the issue would next be considered or provide a viable alternative to meet an existing need before it votes to “pause” or cancel such a project.

+Use Dashboards . For key projects and goals, regular, easy to understand progress reports, such as visual public dashboard, could be used so that citizens can easily track progress and cost.

+Use iterative planning on key issues. This could work in tandem with the report on decisions made and dashboards. It would require that goals for projects be defined in advance and evaluated at defined stages. Data, including public comment, would be gathered in each of the fields as the process of implementation unfolds. At defined points, and particularly at project end, the Council would invite review and capture lessons learned for improving and refining its processes.

.      .       .

 One participant at the November 15 Community Commons observed,

“Changing from feeling like a small town to a large city is a rough transition for anywhere.”

and

“Something about a small community model that is very attractive, authentic. Everybody plugged into everything all the time.”

Greater transparency, improving the ways we communicate, and greater accountability and follow-through can help plug more people in, and create a more authentic sense that we are connected together as one community.

Come share your ideas and insights on  December 20.

Community Commons
Tuesday, December 20, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

Continue The Conversation – December 20!

We had energized conversations at our November 15 Community Commons.   You can read the notes taken during those conversations here.  These conversations will continue as we focus on how to move forward with specific actions during our 4th Community Commons,  December 20, 2016 from 7 to 9 pm at the offices of the Tribune.

The conversations on November 15 centered around two themes, Building Bridges and Citizen Centered Planning.  The group discussing how to build bridges among Columbia’s diverse groups reviewed progress made on ideas shared in prior conversations that related to how media coverage of minority communities might be improved. Student reporters, assisted by community mentors will soon be contributing stories to the Tribune. Other comments emphasized that although there is an interest in building bridges, there has to be a plan for doing so.  In December we will focus on how to follow-through with several ideas that have come up relating to fostering intentional gatherings of diverse people.  Those ideas will be listed for ease of review in the next post.

The group focusing on Citizen Centered Planning continued to address the themes of accountability and communication.  Several additional ideas for improving our processes for planning, maintaining, and building needed infrastructure were raised and will also be summarized in a future post. A group member who was new to the Community Commons commented that he was fascinated by the idea that we could have “a civil conversation on a difficult topic.”  It is those civil conversations between citizens that will help us move forward!

What were some take-aways from both conversations as expressed by the group?  These might be summarized as follows:  Listening is key, talk leads to action, and we will need ongoing engagement, creativity and follow-through to make change.

Working together, we can make a difference.

Join us!

Community Commons
Tuesday, December 20, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

Information, Misinformation, Statesmen and Politicians

How ironic to read that the 5th Ward councilperson recently objected to pausing the design phase for a new sewer line  on the grounds that project costs would continue increasing if action were not taken soon. Ironic because the same councilperson actively supported  “pausing” construction on the new electric substation and transmission line earlier this year.  (See council minutes from January 19 ). Unlike the sewer line, whose projected costs have rapidly increased, the transmission line project was, at the time it was paused, on time and within the allocated money for the transmission and substation budget that had been presented to voters. The concern of project costs increasing was not in evidence when the council voted to pause the transmission line, and has not been much in evidence since as the project remains stalled.

Those participating in our “Community Commons” dialogue on “citizen centered planning” have been asking what citizens can do to help our leaders make better and more predictable decisions about our public infrastructure. Part of this discussion has focused on the difference between leaders who are “public servants” or “statesmen”, and those who are merely politicians. Differences identified included:

  • focusing on the common good v. catering to special interests or the loudest voices,

  • being a good steward of our public resources v. following the political winds,

  • being transparent v. “trying to control the message”, and

  • staying true to a vision and core values v. changing with the polls.

The council’s actions with regard to the transmission line have been a frequent reference point during these discussions.  The decision to pause the transmission line (which was first approved in 2013) was made as public meetings were being held on pole placement and design, in response to public opposition engendered by those meetings, and without input from the citizen led Water & Light Advisory board. Shortly thereafter, the 4th Ward council person suggested that maybe conservation could solve the the transmission issues (Note: as explained here, it won’t). In May 2016 the newly elected mayor supported the ongoing delay and suggested that a new “Option E”, might be possible based on his conversations with another electric provider.  Neither has updated the public on the feasibility of these alternatives, nor provided a timeline for their evaluation, nor provided estimates of the  costs associated with ongoing delay.  A letter sent by the Water & Light advisory board to the City Council on September 18, 2016 providing an analysis of the public concerns  and reaffirming the advisory board’s support for Option A, appears to have been largely ignored.

The recently released 2016 “Citizen Handbook” – which is offered as the City’s “performance report” to its citizens, stated (p. 8) “Wherever you live, water, sewer, electric and stormwater systems should be safe and reliable.” What are we doing to ensure that that goal is met?  Who is responsible for the costs and risks of delay when a project is “paused”?  What information should be gathered before an “alternative” is put on the table for consideration? What information should be shared with the public and when? What circumstances justify reopening decisions already made?

On p. 31, of the Citizen Handbook this report is given with respect to our electric service:

“The tricky part of getting the electricity exactly when and where it is needed is very complicated. Over the years, Columbia electric ratepayers have invested in the infrastructure to build a system that has a reliability rating of 99.9876 percent. Although the electric load growth has dropped from a 2 percent increase to a 1.25 percent growth rate, it was identified in 2007 that an additional substation and transmission lines were needed in southern Columbia. After many public meetings, gathering feedback from residents in the area and the meetings with the City Council, a route for the new transmission lines was decided at a public hearing in 2013. Voters approved the funding for the project through using bond funds in 2015. In 2016, the City Council decided to reconsider the route. At the time this article was published, a solution to electric reliability and overloading issue had not been decided by the City Council.”

How do we want our key infrastructure decisions to be made? What would best serve the common good? What can we do to ensure good stewardship of our public resources?

Join us tomorrow at the Community Commons and share your ideas.

Community Commons
Tuesday, Nov. 15, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

Join Us November 15!

Our next Community Commons is next Tuesday, November 15 from 7 to 9 pm. We hope you can join us.

Post-election many citizens are asking, how can we find common ground and work together?  The Columbia Tribune’s “Community Commons” aims to help you do just that.

Discussion in September  highlighted several issues related to the themes in our community dialogue guide “Are We An Us?”  Looking at the themes of Inequity and Building Bridges, the October session  explored a wide range of topics, including  the need for more affordable housing, housing for the homeless, creating more economically diverse neighborhoods, bringing neighborhoods together through smaller celebrations and events, and providing more places where people can come together for dialogue.

Those interested in Citizen Centered Planning further explored the difference between “politicians and statesman”, and discussed the possibility of creating an easily accessible public dashboard that shows progress toward public infrastructure projects approved by voters.

Interested in exploring how we can bridge divides, address inequities, and put citizens at the center?  Join us on November 15!

During this session we will also be introducing a new dialogue format called the “Conversation Cafe” that you can easily transfer to your conversations with family, friends, and neighbors.  By talking and working together, we can make a difference

Join us!

Community Commons
Tuesday, Nov. 15, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.

Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.

Information and Misinformation – 3

In this post we look at three additional claims made by members of the public who questioned the Option A transmission line route during our forums.

The first was the suggestion that W & L was investing in transmission for the benefit of Boone Electric customers. The fact is that one can’t simply eyeball the landscape and determine who is and is not a city customer. We learned that, for the last 30 years, electric service has been governed by a territory agreement between Boone Electric and the City. Although there is a section of southwest Columbia that is served by Boone Electric under that agreement, W & L is required to provide, and does provide, service to customers on either side of that section.

Representatives of W & L further explained to us that the electric distribution systems of Boone Electric and the City are not compatible. This is because they are operated at different voltages, opposite phase rotations, and different phase angles. This makes it practically impossible for the City to serve Boone Electric customers or for Boone Electric to serve City customers.

W & L representatives also noted that although growth in southern Columbia is primarily due to new residential development, there has been a lot of new commercial development as well. This includes all the businesses along Grindstone and Nifong. Some of the biggest commercial loads have been for medical centers which use use a lot of electricity for all their equipment.

The second misconception raised in the forums related to the thought that the City might be able to avoid building new transmission lines through better energy efficiency or conservation. We also asked W & L about that, and here is the response:

In the 2008/2009 time frame we greatly increased our electric efficiency programs according to the utility cost/benefit established in our Integrated Resource Plan. From 2008 through 2015, the cumulative reduction in the electric load was estimated to be 38.86 million kilowatt hours with a total peak reduction of 5,891 kilowatts.

As a result our electric load projections have been modified from a 2% annual increase to a 1.25% annual increase. Renewable resources like solar help lower the electric demand during the day but the production starts dropping off as our electric peak increases (peaks happen around 5 to 7 pm). Note that large amounts of electricity can’t be stored for an economical price.

Although energy efficiency, controlling the demand, and new solar resources are great achievements for our community, they simply won’t solve the problem of a second feed into the Perche Creek substation or the overloading we already have at our existing substations. ”

Third, we asked about the various claims, made during the forums, that “Option A” was the “most expensive” option. “Expense” is actually a complicated issue that requires consideration of different time frames, and benefits gained. W & L shared with us information (also shared with the City Council) indicating that Option A, while initially more costly in nominal dollars, also provides more capacity and resolves issues for a much longer period. That means it is lower cost, or higher value, over time.

You can review this, and other information related to the transmission line issue, on an archive webpage created by Water and Light to help keep the public informed.

Information and Misinformation – 2

Many comments made by those opposed to the transmission line route known as Option A centered on the appearance of poles – height, type of materials, diameter of base etc.

Talking with Connie Kaprowicz from Water & Light, we learned that these questions hadn’t been fully settled when progress on Option A was stopped by the City Council. To the contrary, questions of location and appearance were what public comment was being sought on.

We asked Connie the following questions:

1C1C: What decisions had been made about poles and pole placement when the Council put Option A on hold?

W & L: When the project was stopped by the City Council, we were at the 30% design phase of implementing Option A. This is the stage where we decide where the poles could be located and what type of poles should be used. We held an open house for the purpose of getting public input on proposed locations and pole types. We never got to the point that these details could be finalized.This quickly turned into an issue of whether we should build lines along Option A at all rather than the evaluation of proposed locations and pole types.

1C1C:  What are the different options for pole types?

W & L: There are a lot of different pole options as shown in these slides which were shown to the City Council on January 19, 2016 (slides 51-66 from Council presentation). Note that with the steel structures, the wires are higher above ground, guy wires are not required, and fewer poles are required along a route. If wood poles were used instead of steel poles, it would result in an increase of 55.9% in the number of poles compared to steel poles).

Here is a summary of key differences between construction with steel and wood poles:

Steel vs. Wood Overview

Steel Pole Construction

  • Engineered material; consistent, controlled properties
  • Reduced safety factors required
  • No height or span limitations
  • Self supporting angles and dead-ends
  • More flexibility during design
  • More flexibility during construction
Wood Pole Construction

  • Natural material; varying properties
  • Height & span limitations – more poles required
  • Angles & dead ends are not self-supporting; require down guys – more intrusion on properties/easements
  • Limited design adjustments during construction