Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 14th 2017

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Outtakes—A Matter of Trust

>By Rick Outzen

How can we build trust in government when the agencies appear not to trust each other?

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan is battling the Escambia Board of County Commissioners over his budget and is waiting to see how Governor Rick Scott handles his appeal for money. Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward has fought with Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, City of Gulf Breeze and county commission. Civility is too often lost during county commission and city council debates.

In this climate of local officials frequently at odds, public trust and confidence between residents and local leaders are usually the first casualties. The exercise of power, allocation of resources and choices about values and lifestyles further drive a wedge between the elected officials and their constituents.

As bunker mentalities develop, community interaction is reduced to social media posts, press releases and videos on websites. The politicians only move in echo chambers that feed their egos and rarely challenge their positions. The result is increasing alienation, anger and mistrust among the voters.

The only solution is community engagement that solicits citizen participation in decision making. The process includes 1) informing the public of the issue or project on websites and in town halls; 2) listening to the citizens’ views; 3) reporting back to the citizens on how their ideas have been incorporated in the possible solution and listening to their feedback; and 4) voting on the final resolution in an open, public meeting.

There are no shortcuts, and none of the steps can be skipped. The community engagement process creates better decisions and policies, improves civility and trust in local government, and fosters an educated and engaged citizenry, all of which should be the goals of any local government.

Unfortunately, steps are skipped. Town hall meetings and open forums can be messy. The citizens don’t always like the ideas presented by leaders, no matter how well they are researched and presented. The final solution may be quite different than what the leaders originally wanted.

And that’s the problem for insecure elected officials and administrators. The process quickly evolves into a “win-lose” scenario, in which the leaders are more interested winning the argument and getting what they want than gaining public buy-in for the solution.

In the “win-lose” model, government officials only release information that favors their solution. Public debate is cut short, and no feedback is allowed on the final decision. The vote is rushed to limit any more public input.

As we enter the 2018 election season, we should keep in the mind that only those candidates committed to community engagement will successfully build public trust and confidence in city and county government.