In our previous post, we suggested that a rational planning approach for the deer management project had been abandoned in the course of the public engagement process*.
Why is public engagement so crucial in this particular case, though always important in any governmental plan? Because the issue of deer and how to cope with them is highly charged emotionally, as we have noted. The point is that urban residents who seldom encounter deer have some difficulty in contemplating the only (sorry, but true) means of population control, namely killing some of them. This is called “culling”. Typically the carcass is immediately transported to a processing facility and made into steaks, chops, summer sausage, and a variety of other meat cuts. Often they are donated to food pantries. But asking an urban population to adopt a culling program requires information and careful inquiries about acceptability of this method.
The city’s consultant, Charlie Fleetham of Project Innovations, proposed the “public engagement strategy” as his major work product. There have been three stages thus far. The first was out of view of the general public, consisting of one-on-one meetings with designated stakeholders. The second was a survey made available on the city’s A2 Open City Hall site. The third was a public meeting held on December 10. The slide presentation by Fleetham and a video of the meeting are viewable on the city’s Deer Management Project webpage. The Ann Arbor News published a brief account of the meeting.
The term “stakeholders” is becoming a buzz word in governmental circles, meaning the “people who have some investment in this issue”. In this case, the starting point was “partners”; other governmental agencies who might assist or cooperate. As the May 2014 Council resolution on the deer problem stated, city staff was asked to
“partner with the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Department and Commission, the University of Michigan, the Humane Society of Huron Valley and other interested parties to develop information and strategies needed for deer management, including conducting deer counts; researching damage caused by deer to wildlife, native vegetation, and forest regeneration; and obtaining assistance from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division”.
(Note that Washtenaw County took a lead on the issue with a Working Session on February 20, 2014, and discussion at the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting before that. Subsequently, the County contracted with a naturalist to study the effects of deer on native vegetation.)
The implication of “partners” is that a cooperative arrangement is formed in which expertise and tools from various sectors is applied to address a problem. But in the hands of our consultant, these became “stakeholders” who were merely asked for some opinions. The names of the individuals who supplied these opinions are not given, though we can guess in most cases. This might be important. Most are institutional entities, and the individuals who represented them may or may not be offering personal opinions, expert knowledge-based opinion, or merely be representing the interest of the institution. We are not given their actual responses or even very much about the actual questions asked. (The single slide and limited description of their comments from the December 10 presentation is shown below. We recorded the presentation to verify quotes.)
- Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance is evidently the stand-in for those who would like the city to address the problem (their website has many reasons and much information). This was evidently a group interview. But this small group of citizens is not the entire population who are affected.
- The Humane Society of Huron Valley contracts with Washtenaw County for a variety of animal control services, including humane wildlife removal (deer are not one of the species included). Its President and CEO, Tanya Hilgendorf, is one of the most vocal opponents of lethal approaches.
- The Ann Arbor Police Chief is John Seto. He would be able to comment on vehicle-deer crashes. Presumably those were excluded from the reported comment that there are “no significant public safety issues”. Apparently our police chief is cognizant that deer limit their home invasion and theft to gardens and have not yet committed any homicides.
- The Ann Arbor Parks & Recreation Service Manager, Colin Smith, is presumably responsible for the comment, “There are a few complaints from park users.” (Note the lack of information about actual damage to park vegetation.)
- The Natural Area Preservation Program Manager, Dave Borneman, seems to have little to say here, though he presumably supplied a graph showing songbird counts (not shown here).
- MDNR (the Michigan Department of Natural Resources) was presumably represented by Kristin Bissell, the wildlife biologist for our area. She was also interviewed as part of the program.
- The Washtenaw County Parks Director, Robert Tetens, does not appear to have contributed much to the published remarks. Washtenaw County has been addressing the issue of deer in its own natural areas, but I would guess that Ann Arbor City would not be considered within their jurisdiction, so circumspection would be called for.
- The University of Michigan spokesperson is not identified. The UM is a large campus with many different units who could be differentially affected. If the Community Relations Director, Jim Kosteva, was interviewed, he likely demurred from having much of an opinion, since he would not have an institutional response at hand.
The results from these interviews are summarized in one slide, which is structured to indicate that opinions fall on a wide spectrum. As Fleetham commented, “You can see the same wide dispersion, what we call in the business a polarity.”
All the expert time that was presumably invested in the interviews has resulted in what amounts to a quick survey of opinion. Without identifying the particular observations of each person’s position, the only real takeaway is that there are many different responses. The nuances and underlying special information that might have informed these responses are not indicated. Also, we don’t know how many interviewees are not represented here at all, or whether one or more had a disproportionate voice. Certainly, we have come a long way from “partnerships”.
The presentation of these points on a spectrum is rather strained. Many fragments don’t necessarily belong on a spectrum, depending on their contexts. “We are investing to protect our plants” is shown as a middle of the spectrum, yet it would be perfectly consistent with “we have an acute problem”. “Adopt latest non-lethal biological techniques” should be no different in spectrum location from all the other non-lethal techniques mentioned – so most of that spectrum suggests non-lethal techniques in comparison to culling. And “ban feeding”, together with “improve road safety” and “educate public…” would all be logical additions to complement a culling program, rather than representing a middle ground. There appears to be an effort to make the point that there are a wide variety of responses (opinions), presumably all of equal weight. One would instead have liked to see an evaluation of different approaches.
In addition to the Stakeholder interviews, the presentation also featured a scripted interview with the MDNR wildlife biologist and a review of survey results. (The edited survey is available on A2 Open City Hall until January 2.)
In future posts, we’ll review the survey and some other information presented on December 10.
* A little joke here: rational planning is contrasted to Project Innovations’ trademarked “Unrational Leadership”. From the proposal: