Many communities struggling with a divisive issue will schedule a town meeting to try to find a solution that all sides can accept. But typically, many people want to air their opinions, and the issue may be so controversial that the opposing camps have nowhere near enough time to iron out their differences. Even if the meeting breaks into small groups and facilitators help some of those groups find common ground, everyone else at the meeting may have little interest in a proposal they had no hand in developing.
But if the issue is important enough, the community can still find a solution. If everyone attending the town meeting can choose a spokesperson who shares their outlook on the matter, these representatives can meet as often as necessary to negotiate an agreement that all of them can support. Each representative can then explain to the people he or she represents — in their own terms — exactly how the agreement meets their concerns.
The key to this process is to:
The most effective way to do all of the above is to use a process called “personally accountable representation” (PAR). It works as follows:
After the attendees at the town meeting openly discuss the issue, the organizers ask candidates for a negotiating committee to step forward. Each candidate is given a few minutes to explain his or her point of view.
Everyone at the meeting then fills out a preferential ballot, which is designed to group like-minded citizens around their most appropriate representative. The election can be visualized in the following way: Imagine that each candidate for the negotiating committee goes to a different part of the room. Every person at the meeting then gathers around the candidate they prefer. In effect, the interest groups form around the candidates who step forward.
However, to keep the negotiating committee to a reasonable size, if any candidate has very few supporters, he can be asked to step down, and his supporters asked to move to their second choice. Then, the next candidate with very few supporters can step down and her backers can move to their next choice. This process is repeated until all of the candidates remaining have a minimum threshold of support, say at least five percent of the town meeting.
In many cases, though, some people may not want to publicly disclose which of their their neighbors is their first choice. So, the community can achieve the same result by using a preferential ballot, on which each voter lists, in order, the candidates he or she prefers. As in the scenario above, when the ballots are counted, the lowest-drawing candidates are eliminated one-by-one, and the votes for them redistributed to their backers' next choices. (The exact election procedure is described in detail later in this document.)
When the election is over, everyone at the meeting will have an appropriate representative. (If a voter's first choice gets enough support to win a seat, that person becomes their representative. If not, they get their second choice; and so on.)
Each representative then meets with his or her constituents to discuss strategy and establish ways of staying in touch while the negotiations progress.
The representatives then hold a series of negotiating sessions to try to resolve the issue.
When the representatives have accomplished as much as they think is possible, they can ask to reconvene the town meeting. If they fell short of an agreement, each representative can meet with his or her constituents to explain why and explore what to do next. If the representatives reached an agreement, each one can seek his or her constituents' support for the measure, and answer any questions.
The whole meeting then gathers to discuss the proposal and vote on whether to accept it.
This process is designed to turn a critical issue that is dividing a community into an outcome that serves the whole community.
The following is a detailed explanation of how any community can plan and organize the process from beginning to end.
Assembling an organizing committee
A PAR meeting is designed to produce solutions that will win the widest public support. Most people will find that effort credible only if they believe the organizers are neutral or represent all major shades of opinion. If you are seen as a neutral party, you may be the best person to chair the organizing committee. If you are perceived to have strong opinions on the issue, however, you will need to recruit others with different views to join with you. The more points of view the committee encompasses, the more successful the project will likely be.
Defining the issue and goals
You may find that each member of the organizing committee differs somewhat in how they define the issue the meeting should address. So, before making detailed plans, the committee will have to agree on exactly what issue to tackle and what the meeting is expected to accomplish.
Attracting broad participation
For the process to have the most legitimacy, the town meeting itself has to be attended by people who hold the full range of opinions on the issue. So, we suggest that you seek endorsement for the meeting from groups and individuals who have large followings in the community and span its range of opinions. To maximize participation, you will need to make a good case that this will be a unique opportunity: everyone who attends the meeting will participate directly in resolving an issue they care about by selecting a representative who shares their views.
Maximizing public and media interest
The meeting will have the greatest impact on the community if it draws a big turnout and coverage by the local media. We recommend that you prepare and distribute a press kit that explains how the meeting could lead to resolving an issue that greatly concerns the community. The Center for Collaborative Democracy can help. We can also provide knowledgeable people to speak by telephone with skeptics in your community and, in some cases, even have people on site at key points in the process.
How many people do you expect?
It is always hard to estimate how many people will attend a community meeting. It is better to assume a large turnout than to turn people away because the hall is full.
Who should chair the meeting?
Ideally, the chair will be someone who has the confidence and respect of all the organizing groups and meeting attendees. That rules out anyone who has taken a public stand on the issue. The chair should understand the issue, the election method, and the negotiation process.
Who will facilitate the negotiations?
The elected negotiating committee will have the best chance to succeed if a trained facilitator or mediator is involved, from the project's inception until the very end. If you do not have access to such a person, the Center for Collaborative Democracy will help you find one.
Who will supervise the election?
It is critical that the election of the negotiating committee be totally transparent and above criticism. The person you choose to administer the process has to become thoroughly familiar with the election process (described on pages 6 and 7) and prepare the necessary facilities.
What materials should be prepared in advance?
You will need ballots, sign-in sheets and handouts. An example of a PAR ballot is on page 14. To assure accountability, we recommend that ballots be numbered. It is better to print too many than to run short! We also recommend that you prepare sign-in rosters so that you will know who attended the meeting.
Finally, we suggest that you prepare a flyer that discusses the issue to be addressed, how the meeting will work, and the election process. Much of that information can be drawn from this booklet.
What format will the meeting follow?
Conventional meetings involve little more than a series of speakers, comments from the audience, and perhaps breakout sessions where smaller groups discuss the issue. A PAR meeting, however, is centered around an election, and it needs to be conducted in a way that inspires confidence in the process. The format of the meeting will, of course, depend on the circumstances: the issue; how many candidates step forward; how much discussion the election system provokes; how long the meeting can go without losing the audience's interest; and so on. Below is one possible format:
Introduction: 1/4 hour
Presentation and discussion of the issue: 1 hour
Explanation of how the negotiating committee will be elected: 1/2 hour
Presentations by candidates: 1 1/2 hours
Election: 3/4 hour
Individual representative meetings: 1/2 hour
Wrap up and comments: 1/2 hour
Opening the meeting
As people enter the meeting hall, we suggest you give each of them a flyer and a ballot, and ask them to sign the roster. The chair may then want to welcome everyone, outline the issue to be addressed, and express hope that the meeting will lead to resolving an issue that concerns everyone present.
Presenting and discussing the issue
Many people at the meeting will have a strong opinion about the issue and a particular outcome in mind. A general discussion can expose everyone to other points of view and help them clarify their own thinking, so they will cast their ballot for a representative with a balanced view of their own interests. The speakers should be given a time limit. Ideally, the speakers will span the community's range of opinion.
Explaining the PAR election
Despite your advance publicity, many people at the meeting may not understand the rationale for electing a negotiating committee or the reason for using a preferential ballot. So, following the general discussion, we recommend that someone make a brief presentation and take questions on the subject. The Center for Collaborative Democracy can help with written materials, displays, and training. If necessary, we can be there to assist.
Encouraging collaborative problem-solving
After the organizers explain the election process, they may want to plant seeds about collaborative problem-solving. They may want to say that the committee’s purpose is to try to resolve the issue, and that verbal fireworks will serve no one. So, everyone may want to keep that in mind.
Presenting the candidates
At this point, the organizers should invite anyone who wants to be a candidate for the negotiating committee to step forward. They should make clear that winning candidates will need to be available for a series of negotiating sessions that will be time consuming.
Also, a roomful of people is unlikely to sit still for hours listening to candidates' presentations — especially many they will strongly disagree with. So we recommend that the presentations be brief, no more than three minutes.
After the candidates' presentations, the organizers can ask if anyone present feels that none of the candidates speak for them. If there are several such people, they can be invited to run as candidates, or given a few minutes to find some among them to run.
The more smoothly the election is run, the more confidence it will inspire in everyone at the meeting. The process should be totally transparent.
We recommend that the organizers begin by deciding the threshold of support that will be required to win a committee seat, in percentage terms and absolute numbers. Both figures should be announced to everyone at the meeting.
To count the ballots, we recommend that you set up a long table or series of tables that can accommodate as many stacks of ballots as there are candidates. Prepare a name tag for each candidate, and lay the tags out in alphabetical order.
The candidates' names should also be entered on the Vote Tally Sheet (see page 15).
Ask everyone at the meeting to record the number on his or her ballot. Then, ask them to print the name of the candidate they prefer by the number 1, their second choice by the number 2, and so on. (See the sample ballot on page 14).
Collect the ballots and hand them to the person in charge of running the election.
Place each ballot next to the name tag of the candidate listed as the first choice.
Some ballots are sure to be illegible. If the attendees have written down their ballot numbers, ask the voters involved — in private — to clarify their choices.
Counting the ballots
We strongly recommend that, as ballot are counted, the vote totals be displayed for the whole meeting to see, either with an overhead projector or by copying the results on a display board.
At least, two people should count the ballots -- until their counts agree. Then, record the number of votes for each candidate on the Tally Sheet in the column labeled "1st Count". Also, put the results on the blackboard or overhead display.
If the candidate who received the fewest votes does not meet the required threshold of support, redistribute the ballots for him or her. Each such ballot goes to the next candidate listed on it. Put those ballots next to his or her first stack. (Some of these ballots may not list a next choice. Put them in a pile labeled "Untransferred Ballots.")
Count the added ballots for each candidate. Put that number in the "Votes Transferred" column of the Tally Sheet. Add those votes to each candidate's "1st Count", putting the result under "2nd Count". Also, write the totals on the blackboard or overhead display.
If the candidate with the lowest "2nd Count" does not meet the required threshold, redistribute his or her ballots. Each such ballot goes to the next candidate listed on it who is still in the running. Put those ballots next to his or her other stacks. Count those additional ballots for each candidate. Put that number in the 2nd "Votes Transferred" column of the Tally Sheet. Add those votes to each candidate's "2nd Count", putting the result under "3rd Count".
Repeat this process until all the candidates left have the required threshold of support.
Note: At some points, there may be ties for last place. If each of the tied candidates has less than half the required threshold of support, you can redistribute the ballots of both candidates. If, however, the tied candidates have more than half the required threshold of support, we recommend that both candidates — and all other remaining ones — be considered elected. While this process is more involved than the elections most people are used to, it is necessary to ensure that everyone at the meeting gets the most appropriate representative.
Once the negotiating committee has been elected, each representative should be given the opportunity to meet privately with his or her "constituents." In those meetings, everyone should give their name, address and possibly their phone number to their elected representative so that he or she can stay in touch with them over the period of time that the committee will be negotiating.
Closing the town meeting
We suggest that after the representatives meet with their constituents, the entire town meeting reconvene for a brief closing session. The organizers may want to express their confidence that the representatives will be able to negotiate a resolution of the issue and express appreciation for those who have put effort into the process so far.
Setting a time and date for the first negotiation
Then, the elected representatives can meet as a group with the facilitator to prepare and set a date for their first meeting.
Issuing a press release
Finally, the organizers may want to issue a press release that describes the meeting, names the negotiators and spells out what they are expected to achieve.
Using a facilitator
The negotiators will have the best chances to succeed if a skilled facilitator or mediator is guiding them. He or she will usually be able to sell the representatives on the consensus-building process. After all, a unanimous agreement is likely to have the greatest force in the community-at-large and with elected officials. Still, consensus should not be an absolute requirement because that would mean any representative can create a deadlock, and hold the whole process hostage.
In any event, the facilitator will usually lead the representatives through several steps, asking them to:
Clarify and communicate their priorities to one another, which will reveal areas where their interests coincide and areas where their interests conflict.
There is abundant literature on what it takes for parties struggling over a divisive issue to reach consensus. To those unfamiliar with the process, we recommend The Consensus Building Handbook edited by Lawrence Susskind, Sarah McKearnan and Jennifer Thomas-Larmer (Sage Press, 1999), Breaking the Impasse by Lawrence Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank (Basic Books, 1987), and How to Make Meetings Work by Michael Doyle and David Straus (Berkley Publishing, 1976). The Center for Collaborative Democracy is also available for consultation during the negotiations.
Regardless of who guides the negotiations or how they progress, the committee will reach a point when its members have accomplished as much as they think they can. They can then call for a second town meeting.
The negotiating committee may have reached consensus and be enthusiastic about its efforts. If so, many in the community will want to attend the second meeting.
Or that may not be the case. The committee may have reached agreement but not be unanimous. It may even be deadlocked. That will make it harder to build public interest in a second meeting. Still, there will be a lot more information about the obstacles remaining to a resolution, and from a second meeting may emerge a sense of where the community wants to go from there. Hopefully, everyone who attended the first meeting will want to hear what their representatives achieved.
Formatting the meeting
Again, how the meeting is structured will depend on the situation. The following is one possible format:
Opening the meeting
We suggest opening the meeting with a review of the issue, the reasons for choosing a representative committee, the election method, and the evening's agenda.
Meetings between representatives and constituents
If the committee has recommendations to make, their success will depend on whether or not most of the community accepts them. The most effective spokespeople for those recommendations are likely to be the committee members themselves speaking to the people who elected them. So, the next step should be a meeting between each representative and his or her constituents.
If the representatives achieved a resolution, each one should explain to his or her constituents why he thinks it is worthy of their support. While everyone he is speaking to will, in theory, share a common approach to the issue, they are unlikely to all agree on the tradeoffs required to resolve it. So, these dialogues may be heated. The organizers should allow enough time for the representatives to make their case. It may even be helpful to have a facilitator at each of these meetings.
If the negotiating committee reached an impasse, the representatives can explain why. One reason may be that they feared their constituents would reject the concessions that seemed necessary to reach an agreement. In these private meetings, if enough people express disappointment at the impasse, the representatives can explore whether some of the outcomes considered would be acceptable. While the representatives should have floated such "trial balloons" long before the second meeting, when all of their constituents are gathered together facing the possibility of being stuck with the status quo, they may be more receptive to outcomes they would have earlier rejected.
Presentation by the negotiating committee and general discussion
After the private meetings, if no proposal is on the table, the committee can lead a discussion of where to go from there. One possibility is that the committee reconvene with a revised mandate.
If the committee has a proposal to make, it can lead an open discussion of what the proposal could achieve for the community as a whole — and the alternatives. People in the community who support the solution may help make a case to their fellow citizens who remain skeptical.
Voting on the proposal
The meeting can vote on the proposal with a show of hands or a secret ballot. If the proposal barely passes or is rejected, the organizers can ask the meeting attendees if they want the committee to reconvene and try again.
If the proposal is overwhelmingly adopted, the organizers should be ready to capitalize on the momentum. Many people attending the meeting can help implement parts of the proposal. Everyone is a potential lobbyist for it. Their time and energy should be enlisted to the fullest.
The organizers may wish to prepare a press release that captures the spirit of the process and the ideas it has generated. They may also wish to stay in contact with those who have made commitments at the meeting to ensure they follow through.
In the end, an issue that has divided the community can serve to energize and unify it around a common purpose.
Making It Happen
Assembling an Organizing Committee Defining the Issues and the Goals Attracting Broad Participation Maximizing Public and Media Interest
Planning the Town Meeting
Gauging the Turnout Deciding Who Will Chair the Gathering Deciding Who Will Facilitate the Negotiations Deciding Who Will Supervise the Election Preparing Ballots, Sign-In Sheets and Handouts Establishing the Meeting Format
Running the Initial Meeting
Opening the Meeting Presenting and Discussing the Issue Explaining the PAR Election Encouraging Collaborative Problem-Solving Presenting the Candidates
Forming the Negotiating Committee
Preparing for the Election Voting Counting the Ballots Linking Up Closing the Town Meeting Setting a Time and Date for the First Negotiation Issuing a Press Release
Using a facilitator Clarifying and Communicating Priorities Setting Ground Rules Gathering Information from Outside Sources Brainstorming for New Ways to Deal with the Issue Seeking a set of solutions that All the Representatives Can Accept
The Final Meeting
Formatting the Meeting Opening the Meeting Meetings between Representatives and Constituents Presentation by the Negotiating Committee & Generla Discussion Voting on the Proposal Building Momentum
Please print. Enter the names of the candidates you would most like to represent you in your order of preference.
If your first choice wins a seat, he or she will be your representative.
If not, and your second choice wins, he or she will represent you.
Otherwise, you will get your third choice, and so on.
You may enter as many choices as you wish.