Art of public engagement: The Last Column?

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Wapiti, Wyoming

This could so easily be the last column. Recent events – acquittal of the Malheur “occupiers,” the presidential election, and most of all, in my mind, the violence against protestors at Standing Rock – should leave us all in a state of sobriety, facing difficult questions about what, if any, role remains for those who claim that the general public is capable of contributing to good decision-making.

Yet, even as I lay awake and wonder, I continue to believe that public engagement is both necessary and worthwhile. The alternative as I see it, and as I believe we are seeing it played out, is to replace both the ideal and the actuality of rational deliberation that comes to us from the Founders of our republic with a reality show.

I may be wrong. Robinson Jeffers wrote that “Hope is not for the wise.” But I don’t think Americans will ultimately settle for bread and circuses. And Jeffers’ next line is that “Fear is for fools.” Signs that people can participate in good decisions actually abound. Here in Park County, Wyoming a lot of the same folks who voted for Donald Trump also voted – the numbers prove it - to tax themselves to maintain our community infrastructure. Productive community conversations will continue, though for a while we will be working in the deep shadows cast by dramatic recent events. For a while, some conversations will be much harder.

Beyond this, I could wax philosophical. I do intend to write a column about scale, or more specifically about the multiple scales at which people can be engaged. Then there is the meeting I attended a few weeks ago that left me wondering if our public agencies will ever be able to actually deal with controversy. And of course, I would love to respond to questions and suggestions from readers.

Happy Holidays!

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming in 1974. Contact him at 

Published in the December 2016/January 2017 Issue