Council Corner: Decision-making and transparency

Being on the City Council, I have learned that decisions come from a group process and things don’t always go the way you might want.

We are a diverse group of councilors with different life experiences, interests and values. This can result in decisions that you agree with and those you wish you could change.

Sometimes it is possible to change decisions within the framework of the public law and political process that guides city government and sometimes you can’t. I am learning I must accept this. There have been some recent decisions that have been changed in ways that I feel good about and others that have made me sad, though I respect the reasoning behind these decisions and the council’s integrity in making them.

I am still struggling after being on the council for several years now with the reality that you can’t please everyone, and just like the fact that decisions don’t always go the way I want, citizens don’t always get the decisions they want. I know the idea of transparency in government can help citizens feel that decisions are made fairly and hopefully see the rationale, budget realities and priorities that go into the outcomes. But how do you create this transparency?

All our meetings are posted, public comment is included in our meetings , we have a city website and newsletter and public assess to city records. This is one part of transparency. I have been pondering lately on what creates the others.

One of my concerns with transparency is the effect of how social media and news media affect this issue. One part of transparency can be colored by how news is presented. In my opinion council meetings are not always reported in a fair manner. At times some sections of the meetings are emphasized, certain councilors' comments are reported while others are not, and there are differences in what is emphasized as well as what is given little press. At times a reporter’s biases and values appear to be evident in how a story is covered. Does this effect transparency? I am concerned that it may.

We have seen in the last national election how social media can impact reality. How do we as a City Council counter fake news, misquotes or opinions presented as facts that create a wrong impression of how a decision was made? While you can answer phone calls and emails, meet with individuals and groups to help inform, or write a comment back on Ashland Peeps, you will never be able to clarify every decision or fact.

Another aspect of transparency is how well we as councilors can articulate our thought processes about the decisions we make. Some of us are better at this. I wish I had the verbal fluency of Councilor Rosenthal, for example who can present a logical path to his decisions quite eloquently. We also have different levels of knowledge about processes, city history, planning and the progression of how we have become the city we are today. I certainly respect Councilor Morris’s background in this area.

Other aspects of transparency are more difficult to assess and for the public to see. We all have biases, and in decision-making we must try to be aware of these. I think as a group we work at recognizing these. I know that as I learn more about details and specifics of how things fit together in our city my ability to share a more accurate view of what is actually possible is improved, and this presents another layer of transparency in that I know that not promising something may be a more honest response than saying it can happen.

— Stefani Seffinger is a member of the Ashland City Council.

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