Failures of the Public Participation Process

Public participation turned ugly last week in suburban Missouri, where a man burst into a city council meeting and shot and killed two police officers and three city councilors. At least two others were injured by the gunman before he was fatally shot by police, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

The armed man was a frequent attendee at city council meetings in Kirkwood, Missouri, and he was known for being a very vocal critic of the council and the city’s mayor.

From the LA Times article:

“Charles Lee ‘Cookie’ Thornton, 52, was well-known in Kirkwood, a quiet, middle-class town west of St. Louis. He frequently disrupted council meetings to protest what he called persecution by the mayor and the city attorney. In 2006, he had to be removed from a meeting in handcuffs; he was convicted of disorderly conduct.”

Thornton had waged a long and public dispute with city officials over parking citations, regularly using his few minutes at the city hall podium to deliver vulgar rants at the city councilors.

The city council had apparently offered to waive the fees Thornton had been charged to try to get him to stop badgering them with signs and angry comments at their weekly meetings. Despite the offer, the dispute raged on.

This incident highlights what is one of the major shortcomings of the local political process in the United States, where even though public participation is encouraged, it is often seen as ineffective by the public being encouraged to participate. This feeling of powerlessness most typically results in a public not willing to participate. But in this case, the frustration with city operations elevated beyond powerlessness to bitter rage.

It’s not really evident how well the city tried to work things out with this guy at first, nor how reasonably he pled his case at the beginning, but given the way things turned out, I can only assume neither side had worked very hard to resolve the issue early on.

I’m not from there, I wasn’t there, and I don’t want to downplay the tragedy, but this incident should make us think about how public participation in local government turned from an opportunity for change to a soapbox for crazies.

Most often, public participation these days equates with public opposition. Those joining the political process are usually trying to stop something. Can you beat city hall? Yeah, sometimes, and NIMBYs across the country continue to prove that. I’m sure Charles Thornton would think he proved it in Kirkwood. In this frame, public participation is an increasingly combative method for achieving goals. Could it be that the established process of public participation unintentionally encourages this unhealthy dichotomy?

Three minutes at a podium is more comparable to a lawyer’s closing statement than productive teamwork. That’s probably why the public participation of today is essentially argument. I don’t want to get too starry-eyed and say that we just need to come together in harmony to make the world a better place, but I will say that the disputative character of public participation is clearly doing more to alienate and anger people than achieve mutual goals. When bitter residents, crackpot NIMBYs and frustrated gunmen make up the list of commenters at the local council meeting it’s probably time to revise the way communities solicit participation.

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Read more from Nate at The Interchange, Planetizen’s daily blog.

Tags: suburbscity councils