The Warren Planning Commission is exploring how to strengthen its communication with the public. In June, the group identified some goals and priorities for the coming years, forming a subcommittee around improving communication channels. At a November 27 meeting, commissioners continued to discuss strategies.
Commissioner Macon Phillips, who is on the communications subcommittee alongside commissioner Camilla Behn, said previously, “What we might want to focus on at the planning commission is making public information as available as possible, so that people can use it.”
“The truth is, right now,” he said, “we don’t publish any information aside from stuff in PDFs, and it’s very inaccessible.”
The commission’s work deals with housing, development, town planning and related topics. In Warren, commissioners create the regulations and zoning ordinances that spell out what kinds of structures can be built, and where -- with select board approval.
Much of the commission’s discussion in the past five months has been less about the kind of information members would like to circulate among the public – they tend to agree that it would be content from their bi-monthly meetings, and more about how this content could be better documented and disseminated.
Currently, the main form of documentation for their meetings is in the form of minutes, which are uploaded as PDFs to the town’s website. These are essentially notes that provide a written record of what happens in a public meeting or hearing. Vermont’s Open Meeting Law requires that public bodies make these available to the public in draft form within five calendar days of a meeting in order to achieve transparency and accountability in government, according to the Vermont Secretary of State.
But despite this law, the production of minutes can be slow for local government. Minutes from the planning commission’s November 13 meeting, for example, are not yet posted.
The public can also watch or listen to meetings via Zoom, in real time. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state requires that public meetings be held remotely through July 2024. Some of these recordings are accessible on MRVTV’s website afterwards.
Regarding new ways for documenting and disseminating content from meetings, commissioner Dan Raddock said, “It seems to me there’s got to be a billion ways to do that.” Phillips and Behn have put many ideas on the table – alerting residents via email about upcoming meetings, sending out brief summaries of meetings in the following days, archiving video recordings of meetings to the town’s website, creating a way for residents to submit questions and potential agenda items for meetings, publishing a newsletter, and transcribing meeting dialogue in real time, with software that utilizes artificial intelligence.
Commissioners have agreed that materials like minutes, meeting videos and transcriptions should be archived on the town’s website, and made easy to locate.
At times, they have disagreed about the overall goals for communication, as well as what counts as successful public participation in the planning commission’s work. Commissioner Adam Zawistowski pointed to the distinction between informing the public and inviting them to engage. Engagement, he said, doesn’t equate with distributing information, but has more to do with facilitating a sense of curiosity – piquing someone’s interest to follow up with meeting materials and other resources. Phillips said he’s more concerned with archiving and sharing information. “We don’t want engagement for engagement’s sake,” he said.
Warren zoning administrator Ruth Robbins wondered how the commission might motivate more residents to attend meetings in person – so that communication is “not just about what we did after the fact,” she said.
“We’re trying to get people involved and interested,” she added.
Commissioners also want to find ways to have regular, collaborative dialogue with the town’s select board. They presented their goals and work priorities to the board in late September and will provide an update to the board in January 2024.
The planning commission meets on the second and fourth Monday of each month at 7:30 p.m. in the Warren Municipal Building.