Plan for Traverse City
First, a conflict disclosure: the Mayor of Traverse City, Chris Bzdok, is a lawyer with whom I am honored to practice law. To give that fact perspective, his father, Mike, and I went to high school together 45 years ago on the east side of Detroit, so I'm from a different generation than Chris and live with some different political perspectives.
One major perspective I observe is that he and his generation live in a political world with the wonderful opportunity to act in a virtual democracy. In the 1960s my generation seemed intent on breaking into and disrupting those perceived political smoke-filled back rooms. Today it seems impossible – at least in public life – to either smoke or to cut the deals in back rooms (at least for long)! Today in Traverse City the Mayor has presented us the opportunity to communicate in a new form of participatory democracy through his blog, planfortc.com. It is a smart example of the new generation of policy communication so naturally handled by the new generations of technological savvy citizen activists.
The Mayor takes the concept of political communication to a new level with his Plan For TC, inviting all of us to view, react and respond to all of those issues each of us believe makes Traverse City work (or not work). If we disagree, it's a vehicle for smart dialogue with the only rules being civility and a request to the commenters to use both their first and last names. It is a 24/7 town hall meeting with the Mayor both raising questions and providing candid responses to relevant questions raised by city residents. It should be a model for all public office holders who have the responsibility for creating policy that impacts our city's livability and our community's future.
To make my point about communication, contrast and consider this: had TC Light and Power had an early and open ongoing dialogue with its citizen owners, would the decision on the biomass plant have been different? In the end, maybe not. But what would have been significantly different, I suggest, would be the trust factor, which TCLP has lost for the indeterminate future. And would it be facing two citizen ballot initiatives this fall that carry an emotional "tea party" edge but should not be supported by logically thinking voters? No doubt, the perceived necessity for these ballot questions is TCLP's fault. For further comparison, sign onto TCLP's website, tclp.org. It looks smartly designed with good graphics and the usual information format – but then look twice at this entity we own. It speaks at us, it doesn't dialogue with us, and it doesn't invite our views. For instance, with the biomass plant fiasco, its citizen owners begged to civilly dialogue about the plant proposal's pros and cons, but regardless of its good intentions, TCLP talked at us, not with us, and the public had to resort to petitions and '60s-era street activism, leaving a bad taste for all.
It's a new world where public service, on all levels, demands transparency, responsible dialogue and small 'd' democratic-decision making. And it is becoming apparent that an instrument to attempt to accomplish this is through the innovative use of the new digital world. It would be wonderful to see the Mayor's blog become a site not only for citizen participation but also participation by each of our city commissioners and our city manager. Commissioners, why not blog publicly? Simply remember the rules, civility and use your first and last name. The public would enjoy the dialogue and, most likely, we would be better educated as to the complexity of government, and appreciative of the time, thought and hard work each of you provides this city.