More than 100 local officials have joined Front Porch Forum spread among the various 18 towns and cities that make up Chittenden County (don’t forget Buells Gore!). We always envisioned city councilors, selectboard members and school commissioners joining and having access to the multiple neighborhood forums within their districts. This is a great way for elected local officials to listen to their constituents and to broadcast out announcements… and even to have constructive back-and-forth discussions. And it’s been broadly supported and appreciated by our members.
However, we now also have many appointed local officials, that is, department heads (public works, park and rec, zoning, etc.), police and some elementary school community resource people. In general, these folks sign on and simply “listen in.” If something comes up relevant to their area, they may respond to the neighborhood forum or the person who wrote in originally, or may do nothing… or something else all together. They occasionally post announcements.
One or two FPF members have complained about this latter group, saying it gives them too much power around political issues… if a neighborhood is fighting a development that the city is pushing, for example. I have yet to witness any outright abuses of this set up.
For their part, the local officials seem mostly grateful for the service, but also a little unsure about how best to put it to use… fair enough, Front Porch Forum is a new beast. One official complained just today that “we have well-established public processes for public input on issues… now I’m supposed to monitor all these neighborhood forums to learn what our citizens are focused on?”
With 20% of Burlington participating across 38 neighborhood forums – many hopping with hot issues (e.g, historic preservation, graffiti, car break ins, heroin, homelessness, taxes, traffic planning, stormwater, snow plowing, etc.) – our subscribers increasingly include a line in postings like… “if our public works department is reading this, will you please… ” So there does seem to be a degree of public expectation.
At the same time, other folks are adamant that the neighborhood forum be limited to residents only.
One last thought, some years ago the Five Sisters Neighborhood Forum (our flagship forum) essentially defeated a proposal to build an indoor tennis building in South Park. A few neighbors stated strong opposition based largely on false or missing information about the proposal. The developers, including King Street Youth Center, immediately backed out and the project died before the public even knew what it really was. One person declared that the neighborhood didn’t support the project, based on the forum postings, to which my neighbor Larry replied… Front Porch Forum is “a soap box, not a ballot box.” And I think he’s right… and that’s an important point for “listening in” local officials and contributing members to keep in mind.
A few folks have used their neighborhood forum to great effect… raising their issue on the forum and rallying support among the neighbors. Then, when interest is up and the local officials are starting to tune in, they use their forum to get a critical mass of neighbors to engage the municipality through existing channels… e.g., by turning out a crowd at a commission or council meeting.