An Experiment in Democracy on the Jersey Shore

njworkgrouophoto-600x450I observed a remarkable experiment unfold this past week at the St. Francis Community Center on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Although this tiny community located on a barrier island escaped major devastation from Hurricane Sandy like towns further north up the Jersey coast, damage was substantial and rebuilding is still underway.
But what shape should the rebuilding take? That was the thorny question that town citizens were invited to address in a facilitated forum that shaped the answer to this question into three general approaches: Rebuild and Prepare; Rethink and Adapt; and Restore and Retreat.
Before the meeting, participants were supplied with white papers that summarized the general thinking of each approach, what actions it tends to favor, what the arguments in favor of it are, and the arguments against.
Citizens were serious, engaged and opinionated.

This was not a group ready to agree with policymakers who want to change development patterns on this barrier island:  the “We love this community and we love living next to the ocean. We’re not going to leave” set.
Instead, the group was divided between the choices of rebuilding and adapting. There was a general consensus that they could do more to respond to the next storm: Enforcing existing regulations. Educating citizens about building up the dunes. Taking more personal responsibility. Getting more involved in town meetings. Taking a more regional approach to solutions. One woman summed it up this way:  “We need less talk about me and more talk about we.”
Before the forum, there were other opportunities to participate:
1) Two-Minute Testimonies: Participants gave a short statements about Shore-related anecdotes, policy ideas or complaints at a videotaping station.
2) The “”Wailing Wall””: People posted thoughts on any Shore-related topic of their choosing.
3) Short Takes: In this area, people shared haikus and six-word summaries about Sandy and the Shore; (e.g. “”Coaster in ocean, lives in tatters.””).
The best of all of these will be featured on the site,
The community left the meeting sounding determined to do more to rebuild their community and prepare for the next storm. I left the meeting feeling optimistic about the possibilities of small town civic engagement.
NOTE: The forum was one of five sponsored by a coalition of WHYY’s News Works, Creative New Jersey and Citizens Campaign.  Funds to support this work came from the New Jersey Recovery Fund and CDP’s own Hurricane Sandy Recovery Fund.

Robert G. Ottenhoff

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