Tom Hughes changing Metro’s sham of a public input process

by Dave Lister 

Of all the arms of local government none are regarded by conservatives with more mistrust than Metro, the region’s odd, elected governmental overlay. Born of Oregon’s 30-year-old system of centralized land-use planning, touted at the time as the way of the future but yet to be imitated by any other state, Metro has been composed of the far left, advocating for the far left. Responsible for the region’s transportation and development planning, Metro has been complicit with TriMet in its steel-rail conquest of the region, promoting housing density, transit-oriented development and the eradication of the automobile. When the agency has pretended to seek public input to support its agenda, the process has been tightly choreographed through meetings packed with Metro employees and questionnaires designed to elicit responses supporting a foregone outcome. It only takes a couple of attempts at participation before most people realize their time has been wasted and their opinions have been ignored.

But that’s all about to change under the direction of Metro’s new chairman, Tom Hughes. Hughes, a pro-business moderate who won the post by a razor-thin margin in last November’s election, has recognized that Metro’s public input process has been a sham, and he is determined to do something about it. Drawing on his past experience as the business-boosting mayor of Hillsboro, Hughes has contracted with the Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall public opinion research firm to create and manage a new website, optinpanel.org, to provide Metro with uncolored and unbiased public opinion. The goal is to receive input from the entire political spectrum of the region’s population, rather than the Greek chorus that typically turns up at public meetings.

“By and large the perspective of conservatives is that Metro has predetermined outcomes and doesn’t really listen,” Hughes explained, “and that’s what we want to change. We want a bank of at least 10,000 people in the opt-in system. We have about 5,000 now, but they are mostly in Portland and mostly identify as being white liberals. We need more suburbanites, more people of color and, mostly, more conservatives. We don’t want the kind of echo chamber we’ve had in the past. Not only is it not reliable information, but it really isn’t very interesting. We really need to hear other voices and consider them in the decision-making process.”

I asked Hughes how he would answer skeptics who may think that, even if they participate, they will continue to be ignored. “My answer is that people will be able to come back and see. We want to be able to show the people who participate how their input has influenced our decisions. If we aren’t able to do that, then we don’t deserve people’s participation.”

Registering to participate on optinpanel.org is a quick and straightforward process that takes only a couple of minutes. A short survey sets up your demographic profile. You answer some questions about your age, where you live, your income and your political leanings. And you needn’t worry about Metro having your personal information or contacting you directly. As Adam Davis of Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall explained to me, there is a firewall between the opt-in site and Metro. Metro gets your demographics, but that’s it. Your responses to future surveys will be completely anonymous.

If you’re like me and believe that Metro’s agenda has been driven by a left-leaning minority that’s out of touch with regular working men and women, you need to go to your computer right now and register. Only by participating will we be heard. It’s up to Hughes to prove that Metro has listened.

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.

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