, Newburyport, MA

December 11, 2012

What's missing in LHD discussion?

Matt Schweisberg

---- — Over the past year, I have carefully followed the multitude of point-counterpoint opinions regarding the proposal to establish a local historic district (LHD) expressed in news coverage, letters to the editor, and Viewpoint pieces in The Daily News. Though not a Newburyport resident, I live nearby and have an interest in this issue.

The generally courteous dialogue on this issue is an excellent lesson in civil discourse. This comes in stark contrast to the continuing descent of civil discussion nationally on just about any matter of significance, especially the recent presidential election.

As a long-time federal mediator and facilitator of environmental and public policy disputes, I recognize well the diversity of beliefs, interpretations and emotions that emerge when issues that affect people personally, especially their property and finances, are brought to the fore by proposals or actions of government.

Those on each side of the LHD issue, which in part is readily evident by driving along High Street, are practicing their right of free speech in a constructive manner that attempts to inform and persuade. This provides a fine example for anyone watching, especially children and teens who’ve yet to find their own voice.

There have been numerous letters and a few Viewpoint pieces that attempted to present facts researched diligently by the authors to support a position or to point out flaws in the position of the others. In the mediation field, there is a saying that there are three sides to every issue: yours, theirs and the truth. This isn’t to question that the authors believe passionately that what they write is true and accurate; they do indeed.

So it is a noteworthy and revealing human trait that people can delve into the same background information, digest and process that information and use it to arrive at and support opposing opinions with equal passion and conviction. That reality is part of what makes public policy disputes especially controversial, highly charged and fascinating to follow and analyze.

Because of the great number of letters, opinions and suggestions, I wonder if something is missing from the ongoing process. A great many Newburyport residents are deeply engaged in this matter, and they are mostly limited to writing to the newspaper or posting a sign on their lawn. While there have been a few recent public meetings to solicit input, from what I perceive, these meetings come late in the process, after much speculation and inaccurate information has been disseminated, causing positions to have hardened.

Judging from the continuing stream of correspondence, it seems an indication that, generally speaking, many people are frustrated because they do not feel that they’ve been heard or had a sufficient opportunity to be heard; that is, that their opinions and suggestions have not been adequately acknowledged and considered.

In a matter like this, it often proves informative for all and especially useful to decision-makers to have some type of organized public engagement process — one that is designed and structured to provide the greatest benefit to the community as it wrestles with thorny matters. Importantly, it is key to involve all who may be affected by the issue and provide early opportunities for input. Though such a process comes at a cost — to have an appropriate process designed and conducted — it need not be prohibitive and can be money well spent.

One of the key benefits is that accurate background information can be disseminated early that allows everyone involved to understand the process and work from the same set of facts. In addition, anyone in the community who wishes gets the opportunity to be heard fully by the decision-makers while options are being formulated, those who are undecided get to listen to a diversity of opinions, and decision-makers can come to a fully informed decision at the end of the process.

In essence, anyone who wants to be heard gets that opportunity, a full range of views and potential options are aired publicly, the decision-making process can be clearly explained and the entire process is transparent.

I will continue to follow the LHD matter to its conclusion, whatever that may be and whenever it may occur. For those involved at all levels, I applaud you for keeping it civil. For the next big public policy issue to face the city, consider early on how best to involve the community in an inclusive and transparent process.


Matt Schweisberg lives in Merrimac.