Community Project's delivery on original mission brought into question
Member resigns over how group will release survey results
August 24, 2011LITTLETON – Semantics appear to be at the heart of a divergence within the Littleton Area Community Project (LACP), which resulted in one member's recent resignation and dominated the portion of a meeting Thursday that the media was invited to attend.
Jerry Sorlucco, who co-chaired the sub-committee that is charged with looking at communication within the town, announced his departure due to how the results of a communitywide 21-question survey in July were being handled.
"I feel it is unconscionable not to allow the media and public access to the survey completed by the public at our request," he said in his notice of resignation to the Collaborative Community Committee.
He said he had asked his committee to vote on whether to include online access information in the final report, which "would allow the public to read the survey results," but received only negative feedback.
Littleton Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman Jim Alden said the LACP does indeed plan to release the results, but "results" doesn't necessarily mean "raw data," such as the survey respondents' word-for-word comments.
In an interview Friday, he said the project had to be careful in how it released the information, because the language on the survey didn't expressly tell people that their comments would be made public, only that the results would. And for Alden, the results are the recommendations for better communication within the community that the committee is working on.
The survey was just a tool for a process, and he said he has no personal interest in reading the comments himself.
Mell Brooks, who co-chaired the collaborative committee, is proud of the way residents responded, and said that there are "nuggets of wisdom and pearls of advice" in the more than 1,500 comments from 170 respondents. He also said he feels that they reflect the voting community based on his experience as a ballot clerk.
"I think people are afraid of the survey because they don't know what's in it," said Brooks, but he was quick to assure that the "thoughtful remarks" showed a "depth of love and respect for the town."
In an interview Thursday, Sorlucco agreed that there were many "very thoughtful comments," but that's why the raw data should be released, even though certain people in the town are named.
"I simply in good conscience couldn't support suppression," said Sorlucco.
Alden said Friday he thought it unfair that the LACP was being called out for not being transparent when they haven't had a chance to talk about and decide how to feature the results. Brooks said the committee hasn't determined what the results are. The project won't be wrapped up until Sept. 16.
The LACP was developed in March after a bitter campaign season, the February deliberative session and the Town Meeting Day vote when voters slashed $745,000 from the budget. A boycott of 13 businesses by the State Employees Union also added to the acrimony and helped fuel heated Board of Selectmen meetings.
Some members of the community agreed that communication within the community needed to be worked on, and a group of 40 people from various factions agreed to participate in the LACP. They have been working through the spring and summer on recommendations for moving the town beyond what it experienced last winter.
What was one group eventually divided into three as members identified specific concepts that the community needed to work on: communication, the town budget and economic development.
Sorlucco said he felt the project was in many ways a bait and switch: He had thought the project was about how to improve the political climate within the community, but that was supplanted by an economic agenda.
That switch, he said, was spurred by the Littleton Citizens for Growth with Common Sense, which he believes has close ties to the Chamber.
Alden said the 20-person Chamber board is made up a diverse cross-section of the community, and one-third of it turns over every year.
"To suggest that [the Chamber board members] are controlled by an outside entity doesn't make sense," said Alden, adding that it shows a lack of respect for the professionalism of the members.
Sorlucco wasn't alone in his opinion about how the project developed.
At Thursday's meeting Dick Massimilla said he had joined the effort "on the understanding that this was about reconciliation," but that idea had been "marginalized" by the committee.
He said he became disheartened when the project "morphed into three committees" and that there are stakeholders in the town who are not being included.
"It goes 180 degrees away from why I'm here," said Massimilla.
He said he wished the members could have talked more about bringing people together, and "until reconciliation is dealt with, the war will go on."
Sorlucco said he felt the group had put an emphasis on "be glad, be happy," but the members were avoiding the "hard stuff" that would help fix the discord.
Again, it comes down to people interpret concepts, because Alden and other project leaders were of the mind that they are fulfilling the group's purpose.
"Reconciliation is a by-product of everything we are doing," said Alden on Friday.
"You can't just come into a room and say 'thou shalt reconcile' … it's not a switch that can be flipped."
Alden said the committees' discussions show that people have been brought together and have moved beyond the acrimonious discourse of just a handful of months ago.
The project was uncharted territory for everyone, he said. They understood the process, but didn't know what the results would be, such as the subgroups forming to study different topics.
"The group moved to three committees very organically," said Alden.
Alden also said he thought the perception that the group's focus was on economic development is due to the three committees' different paces. The committee that focused on economic development had a "very tangible" mission to come up with projects –
such as the pianos on the streets – so their efforts were more visible and easy to point out. Meanwhile, the committee on collaboration has moved more slowly, because their task was more difficult to nail down.
Other project leaders added that the economic recommendations is a means to improving discourse.
LACP organizer Dave Ernsberger said things got ugly in the first place because the town didn't have enough money, but if enough revenue is coming in that will lessen tensions.
He envisions that Littleton is developing a model for across the country of how to get a community to work together.
"We're thinking about the legacy: What's going to matter now and matter later" said Gerald Winn, project moderator. "History will show that this process has made a difference."
At Thursday's meeting, project leaders confirmed that the Chamber will have the ultimate say in how the survey results are released.
Sorlucco had said earlier that day that he felt the Chamber's power over the results is wrong because of its ties to Growth with Common Sense and because the committee members paid for the survey on surveymonkey.com out of their own pockets.
The Chamber has been the sponsoring organization for the project from day one, said Alden, so, yes, it will have an influence in how it plays out.
Alden said there was discussion within the Chamber as to whether sponsoring the project was even an appropriate role for it to take on, but they felt it was for the betterment of the community overall.
"We wanted to assist in facilitating a better way to work together," said Alden.