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Op-Ed by Kathryn Liss for Asheville (OR) Citizen Times

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

An idea is percolating up in America – the idea that citizens should have a greater role in making public policy. It’s been tried and tested boldly in communities across the country, locally with the Asheville – Buncombe VISION Dialogues. Now, a Presidential candidate has picked up the idea and has declared it’s time to move these ideas to the center of the American process of self-government. John Edwards has declared in Keene, NH on Oct 13 that he will, if elected, create Citizen Congresses based on the town hall concept every two years to tackle the toughest problems we face.

In a March 2007 poll by The Pew Charitable Trusts, only 34% of Americans said that they believe government “cares about what people like me think.” I think in Asheville there are government bodies and individuals that care what people think. I think we need a process for allowing those thoughts to be heard, a way to find common ground and to build on that. One of the most interesting opportunities I had while working for The Mediation Center years ago was working with private and non-profit developers to figure out how to apportion money for affordable housing. City Council was happy to adopt the guidelines this group came up with. Too often we don’t take the time at the front end to share information among stakeholders and build a common understanding of the issues before making decisions.

Since returning to Asheville after a 5 year sojourn to Maryland I am pleased to see a new initiative, the Asheville HUB starting up to address our regional issues in a coordinated fashion. I am also distressed to read in the media how often people feel that those in Council are not reflecting the needs of the greater population, but rather the moneyed interests.

Five years ago when I left, Asheville was in the middle of a series of forums called VISION Dialogues. I know that there were changes made a result of those conversations, particularly around public transportation. This weekend I was at LEAF and saw the Black Mountain/Asheville bus service which did not exist before the Dialogue on transportation. I know that there were other innovations which happened as a result of those dialogues and there are probably more that have yet to be realized but which were initiated after hearing what the people had to say.

Often decisions can be acceptable to a larger number of people when we have the opportunity to understand each other’s point of view, find the common ground and come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. I hope that Asheville will continue to use facilitated processes which invite all of its citizens to participate in making recommendations for how to move forward in a coordinated way meeting the needs of a greater number of people in the community and helping us to understand each other better.

Kathryn Liss

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