Public Meeting Design 101

by Tanya Zwahlen

Last month, the City of Rochester called André and I for help with public engagement on a project related to the relocation of the police station in the northwest quadrant of the city. The City of Rochester Mayor’s Office, the Rochester Police Department (RPD) and the City of Rochester Department of Environmental Services (DES) had been studying a relocation of the RPD Lake Section Office in the northwest part of the city for three years. They were ready to summarize their site selection process and solicit input from the community regarding one particular site. They were hosting an open house at the Edgerton R-Center Ballroom on Monday August 13th to share and obtain feedback on the proposed relocation. The City Architect called Highland Planning to help with the meeting design. We knew the Mayor and the RPD Chief would be attending the meeting, and that the City Architect would provide an overview of the site selection project.

​What we didn’t know is how the public would react to the project. Here are three things the Highland Planning team did to help reduce risk for the City on this project:

1. Conduct Stakeholder Interviews
André conducted a half dozen stakeholder interviews by phone with residents and business owners to make sure community members knew about the meeting and to gauge their reception to the proposed site of the RPD section office. From our work as City Street Liaison in the northwest, we know the community on this side of the City relatively well. We consulted with the City NW Neighborhood Service Center office to identify the right people to contact.

Here are the questions we asked:

  • Did you receive the meeting notice and intend to attend the 8/13 public information meeting?
  • Do you have any thoughts about the relocation of the Lake Avenue police section office from Jay Street to the northeast corner of Lake Avenue and West Ridge Road, on the former Piehler site?
  • If you support the project, why?
  • If you do not support the project, why not?
  • Are there any community members that may not support this project? Why?
  • Are there any hot button issues that may come up at the 8/13 public information meeting that we should know about?
  • Who else should we talk to? Who should definitely attend this meeting?

After a half dozen brief conversations, we learned that most were supportive of the RPD Section Office relocation, though a few were worried that response times could increase. As a result of this concern, the project team consulted with RPD before the meeting regarding response times, and this topic was incorporated into the project presentation. After the presentation, one meeting attendee stated that the presentation answered all of the questions he had about the project. That was music to our ears.

2. Define What the Public Could Influence
When we first met with the project team, André and I asked a lot of questions about what decision would be made by the City regarding the RPD section office relocation, and when it would be made and by whom. We learned that City Council was voting to purchase the land for the new RPD Section Office at their September meeting. We documented this statement as follows:

After studying a number of potential locations over three years, the City of Rochester will relocate the Lake Avenue police section from 1099 Jay Street to the northeast corner of Lake Avenue and West Ridge Road, on the former Piehler Pontiac site. The Northwest Neighborhood Service Center office also will relocate from 71 Parkway to the new location. City Council will vote on whether or not to purchase of the land on August 21, 2018. The next phase of the project will be design. 

Next, we asked questions about what part of this project the public could influence. From our training in IAP2, we have learned it’s important to be clear about what areas of a decision they can influence. By setting clear expectations, we reduce risk. Here is our meeting purpose statement:

The purpose of the public information meeting on Monday August 13, 2018 is to provide project background, share project design criteria, review the site selection process, share a conceptual site plan and review the project schedule. The public’s opportunity for influence is to provide feedback to RPD on the section model, provide input on the amenities for the new Northwest Neighborhood Service Center, and to provide feedback regarding the decision to purchase the land at West Ridge Road and Lake Avenue for the Lake Avenue RPD section.

The development of a well-defined decision statement for the project helped the City be clear about what part of this project the public could influence and provided a level of transparency to the public meeting that undoubtedly reduced risk for the project.

3. Address Related but Separate Issues
Once we had discussed the meeting presentation, we set to work thinking about how to solicit feedback. In order to use everyone’s time most efficiently, we developed a meeting design with four stations set up around the room.

Two stations included maps of the site and the site schematic, and they were staffed by representatives from the City DES. We suspected there might be an interest in talking to the RPD about non-section office issues, so one station included a map of the RPD beats and was staffed by RPD representatives. The last station included information on services currently provided by the Neighborhood Service Center (NSC), and was staffed by NSC representatives. All tables included an easel and a note taker to capture feedback.

We did not plan to include a Question and Answer session at the meeting, but after the meeting presentation, Mayor Warren led an impromptu Q&A session that allowed the project team to provide more information about a few details of the project. André jumped up to take notes in front of the room so attendees knew their comments were being recorded.

The meeting drew more than 65 attendees and the project was received positively. We collected  feedback that will help the project team as they move forward into the design phase. And we are looking forward to helping the City plan upcoming meetings for other section offices.

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