Tuesday night, about 50 Monrovia residents (myself included) and 20 or so members of the City Staff gathered at the Monrovia Community Center to discuss the city's priorities for the next five years. It was a fascinating exercise in government-by-the-people, and, at first blush, has implications cast past City government priorities in a vastly different light.
The event, open to all stakeholders in the city, including residents, business and property owners, students and those similarly interested, was designed to garner direct input from the people as to what the City government's top priorities should be for the coming half-decade.
With attendees broken up into a half-dozen groups of 8 or so, the process began by asking each guest their highest priorities for the city government over the coming years, and then going round and round the table until 30 or so had been listed. Some of the concerns were very broad, like financial solvency (my own contribution). Some were vague (developing a more cohesive community, again my own). Some caused deeply passionate appeals (animal control was a hot one). While others were uniquely insiderish, such as one from my table regarding concerns about the dangers of aged automatic shut-off valves on gas meters for older homes.
Once we'd exhausted the available time, the City employees led a round of voting at each table. Each participant had five votes to spread among the 30 or so ideas. Since each of us only offered up three or four ideas, this meant you had votes for ideas other than your own.
But, many participants cast most or all votes for others' suggestions, dismissing our own ideas. For example, I'd proposed that the City should tackle the issue of homelessness, as it is a quality of life issue for everyone. However, faced with a long list from my counterparts, including issues like home preservation, I didn't vote for that priority, and it ended up off the list.
Once all the votes were tallied, City staff consolidated all of the ideas that got three or more votes onto a ballot they placed on the walls of the center. Each participant then voted on this consolidated "top ideas" list, producing a prioritized list of what the group, collectively, is most concerned about.
Much to my surprise, and that of several other participants, the two "holy grails" of local politics in almost any jurisdiction -- financial solvency and public safety (specifically "no cuts" to public safety) -- tied for distant third place among the priorities. While the vote was neither binding nor comprehensive by any means, that result alone alters some thinking that has been inflexible at City Hall (and almost every city hall).
For example, four years ago the City and Monrovia Police Officers' Association became embroiled in a deeply heated dispute over the MPOA contract. The council openly and repeatedly stated that public safety was its highest priority with in the constraints of sound fiscal policy, leading to a painfully protracted dispute, complete with MPOA billboards on local freeways. Imagine the City Council addressing that issue it he context that cuts to public safety were not unthinkable and the fiscal solvency wasn't top of mind. Wow!
There was some thought in the room after the session that this was not really a statement of prioritization. One community icon (and past Citizen of the Year) who was seated at my table, observed that most participants probably took those priorities for granted and cast their votes with priorities that might be more flexible in the minds of city leaders. He may be right, but, from my perspective, the idea that people wouldn't at least go through the motions of acknowledging that prioritization -- especially in a time of $16 trillion in national debt and the increasing impacts of prison re-alignment -- was quite staggering.
Regardless, the top vote getters will not make City officials' lives any easier: Economic development and redeveloping the area around the future Gold Line Station were the top vote getters, meaning the people's highest priorities (again, by this survey) are exactly the things the City has no money to pursue, given the recent demise of redevelopment.
Economic Development was the top choice, garnering 31 votes, or two for every three participants.
This was far from the end of Plan Monrovia. There will be another session next month, officials said, and the results of that session and Tuesday nights will be folded together to help City officials plot our way forward.
There is also an online component, at www.planmonrovia.org, allowing people to share ideas, comment on others and otherwise get involved in the community's future.