On February 1, a half-dozen volunteer facilitators met in Phoenix to discuss the Arizona Town Hall’s forthcoming supervision of a citizens’ workshop taking place over three half-day sessions on Feb. 6, 7 and 11. This workshop attempts to craft a citizens’ vision statement in advance of the upcoming election on Scottsdale’s General Plan. The Scottsdale General Plan amendment previously prepared by city planners with some citizen participation was defeated in a March, 2012, municipal election.

By Arizona state statute (A.R.S. §9-461.06) a city is required to revise and obtain citizen approval of its general planning instrument at least every 10 years. (A city may petition the state for additional time to modify its plan.) In the case of Scottsdale, because its General Plan update failed in the March, 2012, election, the city’s 2001 General Plan version remains effective until an update is ratified (if at all) by its citizens. Scottsdale retained the services of the Arizona Town Hall (after a competitive bidding process) to maintain impartiality, separating City Hall from the citizens for this exercise, attempting to avoiding the feel of impropriety while encouraging “effective and continuous public participation” in the major amendment of the city’s General Plan, which is what the state statute requires.

One criticism that resurfaces repeatedly on the Internet in other states where there is General Plan citizen input (especially in California, it seems) is that real citizen participation is marginalized and that the process is “rigged,” meaning the city administration’s point of view on land use is imposed, unwillingly or unwittingly, upon its citizens. Complaints range from allegations that the composition of citizen “panels” participating in a general plan’s amendment process are skewed by selecting persons who share the administration’s point of view to charges that the questions posed for citizen input are slanted to cause the engaged citizens to reinforce a city’s administration and planning staff’s views.

The most adamant critics of a “town hall” process such as what Scottsdale leaders organized this month claim that it’s a form of community mind-control. In Scottsdale’s case, however, logic doesn’t support this point of view. First of all, the 100 participants chosen (out of about 300 applicants) to comprise the citizen panels meeting in smaller groups and ultimately in a final plenary session were all selected based upon applications submitted to the Arizona Town Hall for selection. In other words, the city staff and administrators did not determine which persons were selected to make up the 100 – person representative body. The citizens selected come from the far north to the far south regions of the city. Furthermore, the open-ended questions under consideration in panel and plenary discussions over these three days were not prepared by city personnel. While the city government advised the Arizona Town Hall that it wished to have the 100 – person group create a vision statement to undergird the modified General Plan, the city did not tell Town Hall volunteers either what the vision statement must say or what any ingredient within the vision statement ought to be. Therefore, the citizen body assembled will itself determine a vision of what planning and development should look like for Scottsdale during the next 10-year (or so) period. No city employee or elected official leads or otherwise controls the live sessions, led by Arizona Town Hall volunteers, none of whom lives in Scottsdale or works for the city government. Finally, while the working group consists of 100 persons invested in Scottsdale’s future, spectators are welcome at this Town Hall. So, while you may hear that “Visioning Scottsdale” Town Hall is a city – contrived and contained process with predetermined outcomes, don’t believe it, at least not until you’ve sat in on a session or the whole shebang.

The Arizona Town Hall traditionally uses a version of a “policy Delphi method” for addressing thorny public issues. Philosophically, however, it is not the ultimate goal of a standard Delphi process to force consensus. The process intends instead to explore policy alternatives in a civilized, thoughtful manner, allowing those engaged to figure out if, minimally, there are some issues and values where attendees agree. The Town Hall process is not, therefore, a failure if some strongly – expressed “minority” points of view emerge from the assembly. Of course, to the extent consensus emerges, the final written product of the conferees is more easily communicated to those Scottsdale residents who will vote on the revised plan. Scottsdale is savvy enough to consider minority points of view in an ultimate statement of citizens’ vision, as some text will be vetted by voters again in 2014. One hopes Scottsdale’s adult assembly in the main matches the good work done by a body of Scottsdale youth assembled during January. As should have been so, the Scottsdale Republic complemented the attendees at their separate conference on the General Plan for their input and mutual civility.