A recurrent theme of the rhetoric in support of the Hometown Democracy amendment is that it empowers citizens by encouraging citizen participation. As an assistant professor of urban and regional planning, I have long been an advocate of finding new ways to give a voice to a diverse spectrum of people whose lives are touched by civic planning. I believe that comprehensive plans and land development decisions are only beneficial to the extent that they reflect the visions of the citizens of a community.
But the fact is, participation rates in planning processes are staggeringly low. The Hometown Democracy amendment is unlikely to change this. Ironically, the result will be poorer, less-informed planning decisions, not wiser ones.
In making this prediction, I do not seek to blame either cities or citizens. I believe that, for the most part, cities do their best to publicize opportunities for participation. Advertisements run in newspapers and on the local evening news programs. Ads are posted on city websites. Planners reach out to neighborhood groups, developers and other interested parties.
To be sure, the public comes out in full force on some occasions. For example, the city of Miami held well-attended public workshops for four years as it developed the Miami 21 growth plan. But this level of participation is the exception, not the rule. More often than not, when it comes to land use or development decisions, only a handful of citizens routinely show up for planning meetings.
There are a lot of reasons citizens do not participate. For one thing, most don't have time. People work, take care of families, shuffle kids to and from afterschool activities, take care of their homes, watch a little television to decompress, and if possible, get a good night's sleep. Realistically, this leaves very little time for most people to sit in meetings that often begin in the early evening and sometimes last late into the night.
The second problem is a lack of knowledge about what's really going on in communities. The Hometown Democracy Amendment calls on people to be "super citizens." If the amendment were to pass, each of us would be asked to accept or reject all proposed changes to local comprehensive plans.
Theoretically, I might enjoy the opportunity to be consulted in such a way. But, in reality, I have to confess that I am not sure that I can promise the commitment or the requisite knowledge that would be necessary to ensure a fair vote on proposed changes to the local comprehensive plan.
By contrast, I take seriously the election of local officials who represent the interests of the citizens in my community. I may not always agree with the decisions they make, but I am comfortable with the power that I have as a voter to vote those out of office who do not live up to promises or base decisions on sound reasoning.
I am also grateful that agencies like the state departments of Environmental Protection and Community Affairs, the Regional Planning Councils, Metropolitan Planning Organizations and Water Management Districts, among other legislatively created organizations, have the opportunity to review comprehensive plan amendments that may negatively affect residents in the city, region and state. The people who work for these agencies are experts in their fields and offer an important check on decisions made by local governments. And, if these agencies fail to provide that oversight, then one of the state's many watchdog groups are likely to step in.
Further, as an advocate for citizen participation, I believe that both the state's local government and growth management laws already provide the citizenry an ample opportunity to participate in local governance. The difference is, this opportunity comes on the front end of the process rather than at the conclusion.
If passed, the Hometown Democracy Amendment would reduce expectations that citizens proactively participate in local planning while increasing the odds they would only weigh in after the local government had rendered its final decision. That sort of ad hoc, last-minute engagement is no way to plan.
If Floridians are truly interested in the development activities that are altering the landscapes of the places they live, they should participate at every given juncture. People's voices are most powerful when they join forces in local visioning processes so that they engage in a healthy dialogue, rather than an after-the-fact up or down vote on issues that are not black or white.
Dawn Jourdan is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Florida.