March 16, 2016

Allow the public in on major decisions

Concept drawing of an ART station.

Terry Brunner is an Albuquerque resident and these views are his own

There’s a disturbing trend going on in New Mexico of major public policy issues being pursued without adequate public input and evaluation.

Terry Brunner, courtesy photo

Terry Brunner, courtesy photo

The recent decision by the University of New Mexico (UNM) Board of Regents to bring control of the Health Sciences Center under their authority and the City of Albuquerque’s pursuit of the Albuquerque Rapid Transit Project are two recent examples.

In both cases the public felt shortchanged. The UNM Regents rushed through a decision affecting UNM’s nationally-recognized health programs with one public hearing. A proposal of this magnitude was surely in the works for a while. Why wasn’t the public brought in early and instead kept in the dark? Not surprisingly, the input received at Monday’s Regent’s meeting was vocal, bi-partisan and impassioned. Despite pleas to the Regents to give students and the public time to evaluate the proposal, the Regents plowed ahead.

The Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) project arrived at a similar point. Since the project began in 2011 it moved along without much interest from the public or fanfare from City Hall until this winter when funding appeared for ART and the City began to hold meetings to describe the implementation of the project. The public became extremely vocal and concerned about the project resulting in chaotic public meetings. That public outcry should have sent the message to City leaders that perhaps they hadn’t adequately informed and involved the public.

However, the public’s reaction didn’t seem to sway City Hall. As the chief proponent of the project, the Mayor didn’t even care to show up at the public meetings. So, they are pressing ahead; despite calls for an up and down vote on what is arguably the largest infrastructure project Albuquerque has seen in decades.

It makes you wonder, why are these officials so fearful of the public getting involved in these decisions?

New Mexico and Albuquerque are in tough times. Our economy is faltering, people are leaving the state and crime is on the rise. It’s tempting, in times of trouble, for elected and appointed officials to rush forward and make decisions as quickly as possible.  Some officials take the perspective that they know best and that the public can’t possibly add to the discussion anything they don’t already know. As inconvenient as it may be to the powers that be, they must take the time to seek the public’s input and generate public support for their ideas. Public involvement strengthens the “buy-in” from those affected and increases the likelihood for success.

How our city and state go about addressing our issues in the next few years will say a lot about who we are. Will we, as a community, press forward together to solve our problems and improve the quality of life of our friends and neighbors in the state? Or, will we simply allow a select few to make decisions for us and trust them to do what’s best? I suggest the former is the best way to proceed.

But keep in mind we can’t just blame leaders for not listening to us. Citizens have to do their part to hold them accountable beyond these two projects and keep the pressure up for leaders to be transparent year-round.

Time will tell if either of these decisions works out. More and more, though, it seems like a small group of influential people are making decisions in New Mexico without the input of the general population. In my view, public participation waters the tree of democracy. Without it, we are weaker and more susceptible to a select few making decisions without us. As a community, we won’t grow if we allow that to happen.

Brunner is the State Director for Rural Development at the USDA and former State Director to U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman. These views are as a private resident and not in any official capacity.