June 26th Meeting Recap may be found here
It’s been almost a year and a half since the Sea-Tac Airport Roundtable (StART) made its debut and I have to say I am not thrilled with the current state of play. I’m not talking about its accomplishments (work product) or its process (which I call ‘Bad College Lecture’). I’m talking about what it actually is.
What the Port wanted to create
The StART is, first and foremost, a tool of compliance. I’m not being cynical. Community engagement is an FAA requirement for large airports–especially those that rely on Airport Improvement Fund (AIP) grants. You have to show the Federal government that you care about the surrounding community and this is one of their explicitly prescribed ways of doing so. It’s a way for the Port Of Seattle to check off a box with the FAA.
It is also a marketing opportunity. It’s a very inexpensive way to show King County and the media that the Port is engaged and responsive. It creates the appearance of great engagement. You can’t realistically expect anyone but us to not be impressed by the effort the Port puts into the StART.
So when a StART member sits down at the table, he or she needs to recognize that they are immediately fulfilling two goals of The Port Of Seattle whether or not the StART member gets any benefit whatsoever from the process. There’s a cost to showing up.
I’m not saying that this cost isn’t worth paying. The potential benefits of the StART are undeniable. I’m just saying that the members need to understand that there is that cost. And so when you show up, you better make sure you get your money’s worth. Because the Port definitely is.
Bad College Lecture
I’m being generous when I say that over half of the proceedings at all StART meetings are a complete waste of time. They all follow a similar format–one borrowed from the Highline Forum which I call ‘bad college lecture’.
Bad College Lecture is where you show up for a class and expect to be ‘educated’ by the nice professor. He spends most of his time regurgitating the material you could’ve read on your own in the text book with little time left over for creative engagement. You can never become good at your discipline if most of your education works that way. You may get a degree. But you won’t have really mastered the material. The Good College Lecture, on the other hand, is where everyone reads the material ahead of time and then the ‘lecture’ is spent with students engaging the finer points of the material. That’s the environment where students challenge and go beyond.
What bugs me about the StART is that the members haven’t rebelled against the Bad College Lecture approach–even though its clear that many of them find it confining. I keep waiting for a moment when someone stands up and says, “I’ve heard that before, sir. We’ve all heard that before, sir. Move on.”
Because the thing about Bad College Lecture is that it makes you feel like you’re doing something. But you’re not really doing something. And what’s worse is if you’re doing Bad College Lecture on a deadline. Wasting time, when there’s no time to waste, is a crime.
No time to waste
And that’s yet another advantage for the Port Of Seattle and this is where I get a bit cynical. It is to the Port’s advantage to make processes like the StART and the Highline Forum drag out as long as possible. Every month and year that goes by allows Sea-Tac Airport to keep growing and expanding while saying that they are in constant engagement with the public. It’s what they call a rope-a-dope.
When a StART member tolerates all this delay, they’re enabling the Port Of Seattle. StART meetings need to be as efficient as possible because to do otherwise is irresponsible. We simply don’t have any time to waste. And I tend to resent it when I see these meetings run like we have all the time in the world. We don’t. Sea-Tac is adding gates as I write this.
One final advantage of the StART for the Port Of Seattle is that it helps to concentrate all the public engagement into one room. Clearly, none of the City Councils are doing much to engage with their residents on the airport. What they’ve chosen to do is assign their StART members, then let them ‘go forth to the StART’. That’s almost the entire extent of their ‘public engagement’ on airport issues. It gives council members political cover to say, “We’re working on the airport!”, but without actually having to do any public engagement of their own.
I heard at least two StART members tonight ask that the Port do more to engage with the public. Really? You expect the Port Of Seattle to educate your residents as to the evils of Sea-Tac Airport? Are you fucking kidding me?
Each city should be doing its own marketing campaign to inform their residents as to what is going on and empower them to engage with the Port. Very few residents know what is going on, how bad things are or what they can do to help. We have allowed our problems with the airport to be outsourced to yet another very small group.
StART meetings can be productive. But the members have to take control and stop allowing every meeting to run out the clock. Tonight’s useful member input actually came during the last five minutes of the meeting. That’s gotta change.
Members have to demand that the lion’s share of meetings are not spent on repetitious things that members should already know. They have to demand that meetings are mostly about their agenda. And that agenda should be: Asking for things. From the Port Of Seattle. From the airlines. The lion’s share of every meeting should be spent on what the members want. They should be spent hashing out shared goals and then pushing until those goals are achieved. And above all, they have to go back to their local governments and demand that they put more energy into energizing their residents as to the issues. Because we need the public in order to improve our situation.
I say it so often it becomes redundant: The Port keeps right on building.