Filling Seats 

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1. There is a place at the table for everyone.

2. Everybody gets called to the table at the same time.

3. Everybody gets some of everything. Take some and pass it around.

These were the rules for meals at my house when I was growing up. From my spot toward the middle of a lineup of 10 children, I took the rules to heart, as if they counted among my inalienable rights. But really, this was simply "kitchen table justice" learned at an early age.

At our house, everyone knew when dinner was going to be served. All of us knew we were expected to be there by the time the meal started.

And what if my older brother wasn't there? Or what if I wasn't?

Neither one of us could just sit and shrug our shoulders when asked about the empty place. My mom would say, "You go find your brother and get him here. Now."

These days, kitchen-table rituals and rules are honored more in the breach than in the observance, and mealtime at my own household is no exception.

And yet there is one arena where everyone insists on talking as if kitchen-table justice were alive and well -- in fact, better than ever. Get close to any local public participation process, and you will hear all the right buzz words:

"We need everybody around the table. … An invitation has gone to all segments of the community that may be affected. … We want to ensure the broadest, most diverse participation of the community possible. … We did everything we could to get people here."

This sort of talk bothers me because it is generally so far from the truth.

Take, as just the most recent example, the city of Richmond's ongoing effort to review and update its Downtown Master Plan. The city has already gone through a great deal of effort and expense to stage the kickoff of a public participation process, to which (for some reason) it gave a very high-tone name, a "charrette."

In terms of kitchen-table justice, one odd thing about the charrette was that general word about the gathering came very late in the going, even though the event itself had been planned for months.

At the outset, the city was asking for a significant commitment of time over a midsummer weekend from anyone who wanted to participate. Meanwhile, the city went to almost no trouble to give people a chance to get there on time, or get there at all.

Instead the city turned over its responsibility to give public notice about the event primarily to the private downtown promotional organization, Venture Richmond. You practically had to be a friend of Venture Richmond, or at least be on its list for "e-mail blasts," to get invited to the table.

Fortunately, word of the event spread more broadly in the last few days before the event started. But what do you make of an invitation to dinner, so to speak, when it arrives at the last minute? And what do you make of an invitation to dinner when it doesn't even come from the host?

Given the circumstances, I think many people felt they just weren't really invited or welcome to participate. In fact, I know that, because people from the black community, the Asian-American community, the Hispanic community and the low-income community told me that very thing in the days following the weekend session of the charrette process.

By now I've seen an invitation list, of sorts, that Venture Richmond used in its own effort to encourage attendance. If it is an invitation list, it smacks of invitation by exclusion.

For example, Venture Richmond and the city may say that notice went out to downtown property owners. But that is misleading. Notice went out to the select group of high-end property owners in the Downtown Special Assessment Districts.

Printed brochures were also apparently dropped off at some downtown restaurants and coffee shops, while downtown spots more likely to be frequented by the black community were noticeably missing from the list.

Assuming it was intended to do so, the charrette process has certainly not involved a representative cross section of the community to this point. Not even close.

At the Saturday work session for the midsummer kickoff event, I counted seven black participants; my unofficial tally has since been revised upward to "no more than 10," as reported in the Richmond Free Press. While I counted zero Hispanic participants, an event organizer told me that one Hispanic participant was in fact present. I stand corrected. My count of zero Asian-Americans in attendance Saturday has gone unchallenged.

It is one thing to claim that there is a place at the table for everyone. It is another to make that happen.

When it is so clear that so many people have been left out of the process and are not at the table, it can be said that for every seat filled, there is an empty seat right alongside.

The city has a chance to get a real cross-section of the community involved at its next Downtown Master Plan meeting scheduled for Sept. 27, so that everybody can be at the table in a meaningful way.

I know what my mom would say to the city of Richmond and its Community Development Department: Go get your brothers and sisters here. Now. S

Mike Sarahan, an assistant city attorney from 1984 to 1999, has just begun a student teaching assignment with the Henrico Public Schools special education program.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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