The problem with participatory planning, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, is that it takes too many evenings.

I recently received an e-mail message from the village, inviting me to attend three 3-hour public meetings. This time the subject is not downtown Oak Park generally, or the “superblock” portion of it, or even the Colt building. It is nine hours worth of meetings on the subject of “Planning/Design of the Downtown Parking Garage and Street System.”

May I just say, “Enough already with all the meetings!”

Over the past year, we have already had 16 public meetings and board study sessions on the subject of downtown Oak Park. At about three hours per meeting, that’s more than 60 hours of “public planning” for downtown Oak Park.

This is what the current village board’s one big idea-public participatory planning-has come to: Endless meetings attended by the same few dozen people repeating the same things they said at the first one. Yet none dare to miss a subsequent meeting for fear that the “other side” will show up and thereby somehow “win” the (endless) debate. When the occasional new faces show up at a public meeting, they can’t help but notice how everyone else in the room knows each other by name. Their input, if given only once, is quickly forgotten in the face of the repeated entreaties of the self-appointed few who show up every time. As a result, civic-minded citizens who don’t want to commit all their free time to public meetings are discouraged and, increasingly, silenced. Why bother?

“Public participatory planning” is nothing more than elitism wrapped in the rhetoric of direct democracy. It is government by the few-by self-appointed local activists who have the time and inclination to attend 60 hours of “public” meetings on a given subject. As a friend of mine complained to me recently, “Reasonable people are worn down by the constant requests for input.”

Amen to that.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with having a public meeting. Policymakers need to hear from citizens and citizens need to listen to each other. But elevating the concept of “Why have only one public meeting when we could have a dozen?” to official village policy is a waste of the community’s valuable time. The irony is that what’s billed as participatory planning is discouraging the participation of civic-minded Oak Parkers who actually have real lives.

It is also a deliberate attempt to undermine the influence of citizen boards and commissions, which, along with legally required public hearings, have been the traditional and quite successful mechanisms for providing village boards with citizen input.

The NLP/VCA-dominated board came to office convinced that citizen commissions were dominated by VMA evil-doers, so they grafted participatory planning procedures on top of the existing commission structure, thereby devaluing citizen commissions and boards and the time and effort citizens put into them.

In the end, “public participatory planning” appears to be just an excuse for this board not to do its job, which is to actually decide things. As long as there is one more public meeting scheduled-and it seems there always is-the board doesn’t have to act. It can simply abdicate its responsibility to make policy in deference to endless process.

And so, while we continue with our ongoing civic meet-up, nothing happens. Downtown Oak Park continues to hemorrhage businesses, and we are no closer to having a coherent downtown plan than we were a year ago when this board trashed the Crandall-Arambula plan and ordered the community to keep meeting.

We have got to do better.

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