Some State College residents soon will receive an invitation in the mail.
It won’t be an enticement for a credit card or car insurance, but a different kind of pitch: a chance to serve on a 20-person panel and become closer to local municipal decision-making.
The mailing stems from a partnership between State College and Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology.
Called the GeoDeliberation Project, the effort began about two years ago, Penn State researcher Jessica Kropczynski said, through IST faculty members John Carroll and Guoray Cai. The first venture focused on understanding the different kinds of citizen engagement that affected decision-making in the borough and creating ways to visualize this information.
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“Being tech people in IST,” Kropczynski said, “we came up with a lot of fun graphics that broke down these community issues.”
But the project lacked a meaningful way for people to approach that information, she said, so researchers spoke to the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State and were introduced to the Citizens’ Issue Review.
The review is a project adopted by the state of Oregon, she said. It randomly selects voters in an area whenever there is a ballot initiative introduced.
“These randomly selected panelists act like a jury,” Kropczynski said, “and put that initiative on trial. Rather than determining the guilt on an issue, they create a citizen’s statement that is used by all the voters when they go to vote on that initiative.”
Based on that format, the GeoDeliberation Project created the Community Issue Review, she said. The project worked with the borough to identify an issue that will affect an area in the borough.
Throughout the week, about 100 letters will be sent out to residents asking if they would like to be part of a panel that will hear advocates for and against this issue.
“We worked with the borough to access the taxpayer database,” she said. “This issue will affect the Highlands, so invitations will only be sent to people living in that neighborhood.”
Kropczynski would not say what the issue was. Panelists will find out Dec. 1 during a public meeting.
“One of the goals of the project is to get new people involved,” she said. “Rather than an open call for people interested in that particular issue to be panelists ... we want them to come out because they’re more interested in the process than the issue itself.”
The panelists will have a series of 30- to 60-minute online meetings from Dec. 2 through Dec. 7, she said. The second and final meeting will take place on Dec. 8.
Panelists will receive a catered dinner and a $50 Amazon gift card.
Advocates for and against the issue will make their cases to the panel, Kropczynski said, and neutral experts will be available for additional information. The panel will then create a 20-highlight statement for the borough and the Planning Commission as part of the information the borough considers when deciding the issue.
The statement will also be available on the borough’s website and through local media.
“I think the work (the project) is doing is consistent with the online community engagement programs we’ve been running here,” borough Manager Tom Fountaine said. “We think it provides additional opportunities for the community, for citizens, to be engaged in the governance of the borough and reaches a broader audience for that conversation.”