Aug 4, 2008

door prize democracy and the Olympia isthmus

Thad Curtz has noted something interesting about the way the City of Olympia organizes its public comment:
At the Planning Commission hearing this June 142 people signed in to speak against the rezone and 62 people signed in to speak in favor of it. In spite of this, the Commission had people take turns back and forth, pro and con. People in favor of the rezone got to speak half the time - in addition to the extra 15 minutes at the beginning Triway got all to itself to present its proposal (another five turns). The public comment period lasted three hours; 63 people actually got to speak - 31 opposed and 32 in favor.

If you'd taken the time and energy to get ready to try to say something persuasive in three minutes and you were in favor of the rezone, you had almost a 52% chance of getting to speak (32 slots for 62 people). If you were opposed to the rezone, you had just under a 22% chance of getting to speak (31 slots for 142 people)....

In spite of that, it was easy to walk away from the hearing feeling that half the people there were for the rezone and half opposed it, since that was what you'd just spent three hours listening to. The fact that three-quarters of the people there opposed it was invisible, unless you looked up the documents from the hearing afterwards and counted...

One of the functions of a community conversation like this is supposed to be to give the assembled citizens a sense of the whole community's thinking and feeling about the issue. It's not only unfair for people supporting the rezone to have a much better chance of talking, it produces a strongly misleading impression in the audience about the community's views on the issue.
Over there, I've posted a version of what I argue below.

The simplest way to ensure a speaking order that gives everyone a fair shot is a random draw. If each attendee puts her name in a box, and the order of speakers is chosen once a predetermined deadline is reached, each has the same individual probability of first pick as everyone else; simultaneously, the overall ordering, given a large enough sample, will reflect the composition of the group. Randomized assortment also prohibits any sort of selection bias.

This precludes the back-and-forth usually seen in a parliamentary style debate. However, since your average citizen isn't trained in the art of rebuttal, the pro-con lockstep may not be the ideal discussion style anyway.

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