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VOL U M E 44 NO.

7 JULY 2009

The magazine of the Virginia Municipal League

Hampton Roads initiative
attempts to breathe life
into local democracy

James B. Oliver Jr.

Civic engagement
Movement afoot in Hampton Roads to breathe life
into a sustainable, deliberative local democracy
By Mike Knepler

Center looks to connect public decision making

with civil dialogue, informed judgment of region’s citizens

ortsmouth commu- thropy for Active Civic Engagement, James B. Oliver Jr., the retired city
nity activist Terry Danaher or PACE, suggested that many citizens manager of Norfolk and Portsmouth
wanted to learn how citizens turned off to getting involved because and founding chairman of the
can gain a more effective they believed that government did not fledgling Hampton Roads Center
voice in local and regional welcome their interest. for Civic Engagement, or HRCCE,
issues. So, this spring, she at- “Chris Gates gave one of the which organized this spring’s civic-
tended a conference billed as “the first best public messages I ever heard,” engagement summit.
Hampton Roads Civic Engagement Danaher said. “He said that a lot of And connecting people with public
Summit.” people aren’t participating because decision making, as Oliver sees it, is
There, Danaher and about 200 they don’t think anything is ever going the fundamental job of the HRCCE,
other Hampton Roads residents, elect- to happen. They see people putting especially when it comes to major
ed officials, and governmental and together plans that always get put up regional issues, such as transportation.
business leaders heard Christopher T. on the shelf and they say, ‘No, I’m “The mission of the Center,”
Gates, a nationally known advocate not getting involved again.’ Or, if proclaims an HRCCE brochure, “is
of civic engagement, talk about the something did happen, they weren’t to support sustainable deliberative
“need to reinvent the ways we practice informed that the plans were acted democracy in Hampton Roads and
democracy” and the responsibilities upon.” to connect public decision making
of governmental leaders and citizens Never shy about contacting local with civil dialogue and the informed
alike in becoming informed on issues government leaders or fellow citizens, judgment of the region’s citizens.”
and working together to solve local Danaher said the summit motivated Lofty ambitions for an organiza-
and regional problems. her to step up her own activities tion barely a year old, whose leaders
“It was great being in a room even more. She said she will urge frequently remind any listeners that
with a bunch of like-minded people Portsmouth City Council members HRCCE-style civic engagement is still
who want to make a difference, who to become more active and visible in “an experiment.”
want to be involved and make good informing their constituents about “We have the twin problems that
things happen. It was a powerful their work, while she will increase there is no traditional avenues to
feeling,” said Danaher, who owns a her efforts to connect neighbors with do civic engagement in Hampton
small business with her husband, Paul, opportunities for becoming more Roads. You throw that in with today’s
and has served on several community informed on local issues and more society being so incredibly busy and
committees. involved. pretty disconnected from a lot of civic
Danaher grew even more excited If only it were that easy to endeavors. So then how do you get
when she heard Gates dismiss the motivate all citizens and governmental people to sit down and talk and invest
notion that citizens are mostly too leaders. themselves into getting to something
apathetic to get involved in public “What does it take to get people that’s meaningful?” said Oliver, who
issues. Instead, Gates, executive connected in meaningful ways? is currently serving as interim city
director of the Denver-based Philan- That’s a fundamental problem,” says manager of Hampton. “We’re trying

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It was great being in a room
with a bunch of like-minded
people who want to make
a difference, who want to
be involved and make good
things happen.
Terry Danaher –
Portsmouth community activist.

to create a safe, neutral place where ability to tap a broad citizen base was Roads, with no dominant city, no
citizens feel invited to the table. And a long-sought holy grail, especially on unified government structure, and we
plenty of people want those conversa- matters that needed approval from the don’t have 10 Fortune 500 companies
tions to occur.” General Assembly or Congress. that anchor the leadership, how do
“Given the nature of Hampton we get solutions to some of the bigger

The nonprofit HRCCE grew
out of the 2007 “Hampton Roads Why traditional models
Regional Structure Project” on
improving the competitiveness of
the region. The study project was
of participation are failing …
sponsored by The Future of Hamp- Christopher T. Gates, executive director of the Philan-
ton Roads, a nonprofit organization thropy for Active Civic Engagement, speaking at the Hampton
that encourages a greater sense of Roads Civic Engagement Summit, cited four major reasons why
regionalism in southeastern Virginia. traditional models of participation have lost their ability to connect
The project was managed by Virginia with citizens:
Beach resident James F. Babcock, vice • The information and technology revolution that has helped
chairman of the futures group. foster partial-truths about their communities’ problems and poten-
“As the country has grown, it’s tial solutions.
become more difficult for people to • A news media that has lost touch with real community life
know their representatives. Mean- while accentuating conflict and encouraging disbelief.
while, some people in government • Greater diversity in a wide variety of demographic measures,
don’t like to fool with the public while while civic and business leaders have not kept pace with knowing
others want to poll public opinion on how to interact across perceived differences.
all decisions,” said Babcock, who is • The tendency for power structures to blame citizens as apa-
also a board member of the HRCCE. thetic instead of knowing how to reach out more effectively and
“There’s a certain art now of trying
convince citizens that their voices really matter.
to assemble public opinion and the
Gates advised governmental leaders to develop new ways to
center is trying to bring to Hampton
Roads some of the more sophisticated
gather citizen opinions on community issues. “Most conventional
techniques. Engaging the public more models not only don’t work, but they can make things worse,” he
actively in important issues, that’s said, noting that standard public hearings often are held at times
worthwhile. But it’s not going to be and in places that are inconvenient for most citizens.
easy.” New models of local governance, he said, include using power to
Many of the project’s recom- empower others, mediation of problems and listening to everyone
mendations dealt with the region’s with respect.
economic and governance structures, In May, the Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, issued a
but organizers also saw a critical 36-page report, The New Laboratories of Democracy: How Local Govern-
need to improve public participation ment is Reinventing Civic Engagement. For more information, visit www.
in decision making to help forge a
more unified voice on important … Knepler
region-wide issues. For some, the

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problems that cross jurisdictional here, but throughout the country, we region, Oliver said.
boundaries, and get it socially and need to do a better job of engaging As such, creation of the HRCCE
politically acceptable?” Oliver said. the public in a meaningful way, more was part of a nationwide trend in
“Citizens need to get involved in these so than years ago. Trying to do that is involving more citizens in community
conversations.” a real trend. As issues become more problem solving. In May, PACE
But the public participation complex and resources get tighter, the issued a report, The New Laboratories
subcommittee had something in mind importance of good civic engagement of Democracy: How Local Government is
beyond improved regional coopera- becomes increasingly more important Reinventing Civic Engagement, in which
tion when it proposed a “center for in how you operate a government,” Gates wrote that the “past 15 years
civic engagement.” The panel he said. have seen an amazing burst of fresh
declared that “public engagement in But making space for citizen thinking and innovation from local
community affairs is not just a means involvement in public issues means governments as they foster a more
of getting support for projects; it is an much more than giving people a active and meaningful role for citizens
end in itself. For democracy to oper- chance to talk at public hearings or in planning and decision-making.”
ate as it should, the public has to act.” similar official forums, say Oliver, The report includes comments
The committee evolved into the McBride and other supporters of the from Robert J. O’Neill Jr., executive
founding board of directors and HRCCE. Too often, citizens believe director of the International City/
staff for the Hampton Roads Center that such meetings are held merely to County Management Association
for Civic Engagement with Oliver satisfy a legal requirement and that and former Hampton city manager
as chairman and Betsy McBride as most important decisions already have and former Fairfax County execu-
president and executive director. The been rendered. tive. “The issues that really matter
center operates out of an office in “Public hearings often come to citizens cross all kinds of boundar-
Norfolk at WHRO, the region’s public after the important decisions already ies,” O’Neill says. “Getting more
broadcasting organization. have been made and just seem to ownership, more commitment and
“We wanted to be a support be a way of giving validation” to more engagement in the processes
center for any of the localities or public officials, agreed HRCCE board themselves substantially increases the
any organization in the region,” member Vivian Paige, a Hampton likelihood of a good decision and a
said McBride, a former media and native now living in Norfolk where she successful outcome.”
communications coordinator for the owns a CPA business. In her civic life, Gates, who also promoted local in-
Virginia Beach city manager’s office. Paige has long sought a more inclusive novations in participatory democracy
“There’s virtually nobody assigned citizen voice in local and regional and community-based problem solv-
full-time in any entity in the 16 or 17 issues and asserts that “it behooves ing during his 11 years as president of
localities whose job is to think about those making decisions to have a the National Civic League, describes
the civic-engagement loop ... Public better pulse of the citizens.” civic engagement as “a more empow-
administrators are extremely fine with ered model of what some people call
this, but they’re not spending any time self-governance.”
thinking about sustainable democracy. Civic engagement “Civic engagement is more
They’re trying to get their work done.
And the people they have reporting to summit than just attending a meeting or
a public hearing,” Gates said in a
them haven’t necessarily been trained The April 4 summit was planned recent interview. “It’s not a passive
in public involvement.” not only as HRCCE’s first public concept; it’s an active concept. It’s
Virginia Beach City Manager event but also as a “symbolic starting when people actively engage in their
James K. Spore agrees. “Not only point with citizens” from across the neighborhood or community either

We’re trying to create a safe,

neutral place where citizens
feel invited to the table.
And plenty of people want
those conversations to occur.
James B. Oliver Jr. – retired city manager.

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{Public administrators} are not
spending any time thinking about
sustainable democracy. They’re trying
to get their work done. And the people
they have reporting to them haven’t
necessarily been trained in public
Betsy McBride – president and executive
director, Hampton Roads Center for Civic

by doing something or really engag- held at times and in places that are sampling of 1,997 adults among the
ing in the thinking around doing inconvenient for most citizens. 1.7 million people living in the 16
something that allows them to create New models of local governance, communities that make up Hampton
some positive change. It’s different he said, include using power to em- Roads. The findings showed nearly
than volunteering. It’s just not the power others, mediation of problems 70 percent of citizens said they would
act of helping out. The concept of and listening to everyone with respect. be very interested or somewhat
engagement is really an active verb. The April 4 HRCCE summit also interested in working with others to
It means that you’re really thinking featured the release of three public- find solutions to regional issues.
it through. Different people call it opinion surveys that assessed the So what stops many citizens from
different things. Part of it is thinking “civic capital” of Hampton Roads, getting involved?
strategically about what needs to be which was defined as the “values, Another part of the Batten
done and (determining) what are the skills and infrastructure needed for Surveys attempted to find answers
most pressing issues where can you citizens to work together to define to that question. A series of focused
best make a difference.” and shape the region’s quality of life.” interviews with about four dozen
Gates elaborated about the need The survey work was spearheaded by regional civic leaders and elected of-
for civic engagement in his keynote Quentin Kidd, an associate professor ficials included the twin query: “What
speech at HRCCE’s regional summit of political science in at Christopher do officials misunderstand about
on April 4, held at Old Dominion Newport University and director of engaging the citizens?” and “What
University’s Modeling, Analysis and CNU’s Center for Public Policy. The do citizens misunderstand about civic
Simulation Center in Suffolk. He ad- HRCCE refers to this project as the engagement?”
vised governmental leaders to develop “Batten Surveys” because they were The responses were striking in
new ways to gather citizen opinions funded by Jane P. Batten, a commu- describing the gaps.
on community issues. nity leader and philanthropist whose For example, one appointed of-
“Most conventional models not family holdings include The Virginian- ficial said this about misunderstanding
only don’t work, but they can make Pilot daily newspaper. on the part of many colleagues: “I
things worse,” he said, noting that The largest part of the Batten believe most view civic engagement
standard public hearings often are Surveys was a March 2-9 telephone as a ‘superficial task’ rather than

As issues become more

complex and resources get
tighter, the importance of good
civic engagement becomes
increasingly more important in
how you operate a government.
James K. Spore –
city manager of Virginia Beach.

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Surveys shed light on region’s ‘civic capital’
Sangjib Min / Daily Press

The Hampton Roads government and public affairs either somewhat or

Civic Engagement Summit very closely,” while “only one-in-ten adults say they
featured the release of three pay no attention to news about local government
public-opinion surveys that and public affairs.”
assessed the “civic capital” At the same time, 62 percent of the adults sur-
- Kidd - of Hampton Roads, which veyed said they believed that local government does
was defined as the “values, skills and infrastructure not invite citizen input. Hampton Roads residents also
needed for citizens to work together to define and were lukewarm when asked how much they trusted
shape the region’s quality of life.” elected representatives on the local and state levels and
The survey work was spearheaded by Quentin the local news media. Local government employees
Kidd, an associate professor of political science in fared the best on the trust scale, scoring 6.5 on a scale
at Christopher Newport University and director of of one to 10, with 10 being the highest.
CNU’s Center for Public Policy. The HRCCE refers When it came to assessing regional priorities 28
to this project as the “Batten Surveys” because they percent of adults surveyed mentioned the economy,
were funded by Jane P. Batten, a community leader followed by transportation at 21 percent, education at
and philanthropist whose family holdings include The 10 percent, crime at 4 percent, military at 2 percent,
Virginian-Pilot daily newspaper. environment at 1 percent, racial reconciliation at 1
The largest part of the Batten Surveys was a percent, health care at 1 percent and growth/sprawl
March 2-9 telephone sampling of 1,997 adults at 1 percent, with a smattering of other concerns.
among the 1.7 million people living in the 16 While there was no clear consensus on one
communities that make up Hampton Roads. The problem area as the region’s top priority, nearly 70
findings showed that the majority of residents percent of citizens said they would be very interested
“have been actively involved in their community or somewhat interested in working with others to
during the past year” and “almost two-thirds of find solutions to regional issues.
adults interviewed said they follow news about local … Knepler

a fundamental relationship. They making its programs known across “Actually, my generation is starving
also do not grasp what true civic the region. A poll taken at the event for that,” said 22-year-old Lauren
engagement is and what it feels like. showed that 61.7 percent of attendees Perry, a Virginia Beach resident and
‘Hearing’ what someone has to say were white and 78 percent had house- 2009 graduate of Virginia Wesleyan
is far different than engaging them hold incomes of at least $75,000. College who attended the HRCCE
in constructive dialogue in which it Although the HRCCE is not well regional summit and participated in
is clear that each party is seeking an known, its supporters say it holds the focus group. “Most of my age
effective outcome based upon all the great potential to help Hampton group does not feel listened to ... But
views and ideas in the room.” Roads citizens and local officials work we’re an untapped asset.” And, Perry
On the other side of the equa- together more productively to solve adds, “engaged conversations could
tion, an appointed official had this to problems. HRCCE projects on the be addictive.”
say about citizen perceptions: “The drawing boards include a year-long se-
most common misunderstanding is ries of citizen-outreach efforts to help
their sense that civic engagement is Virginia Beach better understand the Building credibility
showing up at a meeting and express-
ing their own opinions about an issue
transportation issues of its residents,
establishment of a regional “citizens’ and consensus
– and then expecting their opinion academy” to help area residents learn The HRCCE’s status as an inde-
to ‘win the day.’ If it does not, they about regional agencies and issues pendent, nonprofit organization will
will contend that their opinions were and develop skills related to civic be one of the keys to its ability to help
ignored. The appreciation of hearing engagement, and a civic-engagement resolve issues, according to Oliver.
multiple opinions, discussing options, initiative aimed at young people. “One of the things we’ve done so
evaluating options and then reaching A recent focus group of Hampton far is not gone to cities for funding.
a preferred outcome is increasingly Roads young leaders, ages 17 to 22, Part of that is to deliberately try to
being lost.” suggested that local governments are build a safe place for citizens but with
The summit also gave evidence missing opportunities to reach out to competence and capacity to do stuff,”
that the HRCCE also was feeling teens and young adults on important he said. “That’s a big constraint we’ve
its way in reaching out, especially in issues, even on the regional level. put on ourselves, but we’re doing that

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Most conventional models
(of gathering citizen
opinions) not only
don’t work, but they can
make things worse.
Christopher T. Gates – nationally known
advocate of civic engagement.

because we don’t want to look like amount of resources. We also are The HRCCE also is available to
government. We don’t want to ask in a real critical point in this region’s build consensus among governmental
citizens to come to us and then have history. We need to come together leaders. In February, the center
them get all suspicious that we might to have regional positions on lots of facilitated a retreat for the Hampton
be getting some funding from cities, so different items so we could present Roads Transportation Planning Or-
therefore we can’t be trusted. That’s a an united front to others outside the ganization, or HRTPO, a public body
pretty tough challenge.” region.” whose board is made up mostly of
So far, much of the center’s
funding – $175,000 for three years –

Operational principles of the Hampton

comes from the Norfolk Foundation.
Other sources have included $50,000
from the Landmark Foundation,
$35,000 from Jane P. Batten, $5,000
from the Future of Hampton Roads
Roads Center for Civic Engagement
Inc., $1,000 from the Virginia Beach The center does not usurp or interfere with the decision-
Foundation and donations from board making authority of any entity.
The center provides transparent, fact-based processes that support
Angelica Light, president and
CEO of the Norfolk Foundation, said
and demonstrate a code of citizen involvement, which include:
she was impressed with the talents and • Respect and appreciation for democratic values
experience of HRCCE board mem- • Early, regular and timely consultation with the public
bers and staff and saw the center as
having an important role in injecting • Open and accessible information
the voice of citizens into important • Published and realistic schedules
regional decisions.
“Cities have long had the capac- • Clear accountability
ity to do community conversations. The center honors several key public participation principles.
They do them all the time. But there Public participation:
is something about some issues that
require there be a neutral broker, so
• Seeks out and facilitates the involvement of diverse stakeholders
there would be no hint of a pre- • Seeks input from participants in designing how they participate
determined agenda,” she said. “We • Communicates to participants how their input affected the
thought we really needed to have a
process whereby citizens could come
together and hear from other citizens The center supports implementation practices that:
... on some regional issues by talking • Begin the project with an understandable description of the
with each other directly, not through decision-making process, well-articulated expectations for
public relations campaigns.” public involvement in that process, and clearly defined goals
“It’s important to foster relation- for the outcome
ships that could be the foundation for
building consensus on issues,” Light • Provide the necessary resources – technical and financial – to sup-
added. “It’s important to have a port participants in the process and create a “level playing field”
consensus because we have a limited

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Most of my age group
does not feel listened
to ... But we’re an
untapped asset.
Lauren Perry – 2009 Virginia Wesleyan
College graduate.

elected officials from across southeast- localities ... For the good of each of believe that this is their region ... and
ern Virginia. The agency has come your jurisdictions and for the region, that they should appreciate that they
under criticism over the years by those this is very important work.” have resources outside of their city’s
who say it has not provided a strong, HRTPO Executive Director boundaries,” Farmer said.
united front needed to solve regional Dwight Farmer was pleased with the The long-range payoff, Farmer
transportation problems. work and said one of the reasons the said, will be when citizens from across
Part of the problem, critics say, is HRCCE was selected to facilitate the Hampton Roads speak with a more
that most board members felt caught retreat was because it was a “home- united voice in helping the region win
in a paradox of whose interests must grown” organization with leaders funding from the General Assembly
take priority – the city or county who know and care about Hampton and Congress for major projects. “I
they represent – or the regional body Roads. think that state-and federal-elected of-
responsible for broad transportation “It was the first time we’ve had ficials really need do be hearing more
planning. facilitated retreat in 31 years I’ve been of those messages from citizens, that
In his opening remarks at the there,” he said. “It allowed us to have this region has this problem that needs
retreat, Oliver challenged HRTPO discussions we probably would not to get solved,” he said.
board members to think more have had.” The HRCCE also will be working
deeply about their role with a regional Since February, several board to bring citizens and government of-
agency. “This room is full of local members have referred back to the ficials together within a local munici-
elected officials who are not thwarted retreat to “remind themselves” that pality. The transportation visioning
or intimidated by excuses in building they can continue to improve their project in Virginia Beach will be its
your cities and counties ... “Isn’t it abilities to work together for the good first. The effort, heralded by Virginia
time we succeed in transportation in of the entire region, Farmer said. Beach Mayor Will Sessoms in a May
Hampton Roads the same way we Farmer said he’s also excited about 15 speech about his first 100 days
have in our entrepreneurial locali- the HRCCE’s potential to educate in office, will take about a year and
ties and agencies?” he said. “This is and involve more citizens in issues include a wide range of stakehold-
clearly collaborative work that goes facing the region. ers, including commuters, bicyclists,
beyond the boundary lines of your “We need to get people to truly senior citizens, people with disabilities,

Public hearings often come after

the important decisions already
have been made and just seem
to be a way of giving validation (to
public officials) … It behooves
those making decisions to have a
better pulse of the citizens.
Vivian Paige – HRCCE board member.

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We need to get people to
truly believe that this is their
region ... and that they should
appreciate that they have
resources outside of their city’s
Dwight Farmer – Hampton Roads
Transportation Planning Organization
executive director.

environmentalists, bus users, military,

civic league representatives, the Tide-
water Builders Association, historic
preservationists, taxpayer groups, the Getting more ownership, more
Chamber of Commerce and other
business groups. commitment and more engagement in
“The mayor and the whole City
Council ranked transportation as our the processes themselves substantially
number one issue,” said City Manager
James K. Spore. “With reductions
increases the likelihood
in funding from state and federal
sources, it’s become more critical than
of a good decision and a
ever to get our planning right.”
The transportation project will
successful outcome.
be a community-wide visioning of
problems and solutions, “everything
Robert J. O’Neill Jr., executive director
from traffic to bike trails to neigh- of the International City/County
borhood sidewalks to minor arteri- Management Association.
als, to transportation issues beyond
Virginia Beach that still affect us,
such as the port, the airport, the endeavors in another way. It would mental leaders and citizens as well.
six major regional transportation mark the first time that the center “None of us are quite sure how
projects, light rail and high-speed receives funding from a city govern- to do it,” he said. “Let’s just say it’s
rail,” Spore said. ment for a public project. a grand experiment and I do think
Public participation will be the “We’re doing the project with Vir- it’s an experiment worth trying to
keystone, Spore said, explaining that ginia Beach money,” Oliver said, “so pursue.”
“we really wanted citizens involved that’s a test of whether we can do it in
and we want them in a way in which a way in which all the parties, in the About the author
the city is not leading but in a way end, will feel that it’s been a neutral Michael Knepler is a freelance writer based
that the citizens are partners with us... and credible exercise with integrity.” in Norfolk, where he wrote and edited stories
It’s a genuine effort to inform and After all, Oliver said, the for The Virginian-Pilot about local govern-
engage the community and do it in Hampton Roads Center for Civic ment and grassroots, community problem-
a way to get a more authentic desire Engagement is an experiment in the solving. He can be reached at knep@msn.
of the community than we usually essence of democracy, not just for the com.
can get through a City Council public HRCCE but for the region’s govern-
The hoped-for result, Spore said,
would be a “higher level of owner-
ship for some of the solutions and a
To find out more …
broader support base that could make The nonprofit Hampton Roads Center for Civic Engagement is
them possible.” located at 5200 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk, VA, 23508. For more
The Virginia Beach project information, call 757/889-9359 or visit
will add a new aspect to HRCCE’s

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