If you know her only in her formal public persona, one of the things you may not know about former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt is that she's really funny. She and her husband, Park Board member Paul Sims, would make a killer stand-up duo at any comedy club in town.
Hunt has a column at the back of the current Lakewood Advocate magazine in which she takes on a topic that happens to be one of my own all-time grievances against the universe -- the patronizing phony-baloney "public input" events called "charrettes."
"Ten years ago," Hunt writes, "I had never heard the word 'charrette.' Had you asked me what it meant, I would have guessed 'a jaunty French hat' or 'a very tiny chair.'"
It's actually not in my Webster's New World Dictionary, which is pretty old, nor do I find it in my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. I'm away from the paper, so I don't have access to the full Oxford, but I'm going to guess that wouldn't help. No, I'm sure the place I will find it is ... let's see ... I'll look ... yes, here it is: "a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions."
That's from Google, of course. Go ahead. Call me a dinosaur. I know I am. But I just can't manage the same level of enthusiasm for a word that isn't in Webster's or the Oxford but does appear in Google. On the other hand, since Google is the only one willing to offer me a working definition, I'll have to work with them.
And why is this worth talking about? Because we're in for a charrette-load of this stuff from Dallas City Hall in the New Year, mainly on the topic of the Trinity toll road, but if that works well for the charrettesters, maybe they'll charrette on everything else in town. They might even do a charrette on you. You never know. The mayor is already promising to produce a giant charrette on the toll road.
So what's my problem? Well, first, what is a "stake-holder?" When we're talking about public issues, things we get to vote on in America, why does any particular person get to be called a stakeholder? It sounds sort of snobby. If there are stakeholders, then there must be non-stakeholders -- persons without stakes. So do they just stand around holding themselves, or what?
The stakeholders "resolve conflicts and map solutions?" If you've got a solution, why map it? Why not just do it? How, you ask? Well, not to harp on a theme or anything, but we do already have this thing called voting.
I read an interview with Frank M. Bryan, author of Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How it Works, in which he points out that meetings --- not charrettes, meetings -- are the ancient Greek form of democracy. Meetings are purer and closer to the original concept of democracy than the system of representative democracy by which we run our own country now.
You don't elect a representative to send to the meeting. You go yourself. You don't have somebody else explain to Michael Morris of the North Central Texas Council of Governments (The COG!) how you feel about toll roads. You tell him yourself. Of course, if The COG! doesn't like what you and your pitchfork-wielding cousins have to say about toll roads, then they call in the fire marshal and get you kicked out.
So what? They saw your pitchforks. They saw your cousins. Consider that message signed, sealed and delivered!
That's why they would rather have charrettes. By the way, the other thing Google told me was that the current meaning of the word denoting a kind of symposium dates only from the mid-20th century, a period I associate Mad Men. So, in a contest of roots, it's Madison Avenue vs. ancient Athens. That sort of tells the tale, doesn't it?
The point Hunt makes in her column is that all of the "public input" she has seen gathered by City Hall over the years in charrettes, in spite of great shows of ceremony, goes straight into the landfill. By the time they get to the decision-making moment, the charrette isn't even mentioned.
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In fact, do they ever even tell you what they're going to do with it? As Hunt points out in her piece, they always give you stuff like glue sticks and crayons at a charrette so you can draw a picture of your idea, because, of course, you have the mind of a preschooler. But do they ever say, "We're going to feed all of these crayon drawings into a gigantic computer program that will digest them and render a final solution?"
No, they don't even bother. They don't even have enough respect for you to lie about it. It's more like therapy. There now, don't you feel better, now that you've drawn a picture with your crayons?
Hey. How about we just have a meeting instead? If the mayor sincerely wants to know how people feel about that toll road -- or about anything else for that matter -- why not just invite us all down to City Hall? They've got that nice big room there -- the council chamber, with padded seats even.
They usually serve treats and coffee to the elected officials and city staff but not to, well, people like, you know, us. But we can live with that, right? Judging by recent events, I don't think we'll have any trouble getting the pitchforks through security. That's what counts.