Last week, Harris Sokoloff had an op-ed in the Philadelphia Daily News about how to make town hall meeting productive for both citizens and elected officials. We asked him to write a blog post about the budget forums being organized by Mayor Nutter. Here is what Harris has to say.....

When I wrote my op ed for last Wednesday’s Daily News ("Making 'town hall' meetings work"  -, I was expecting the same old same old.  I was surprised by some of what actually happened.  And surprised that the news reports didn’t discuss it.  I guess, it can be hard to see what you don’t expect.

I haven’t seen any comment on an unexpected surprise at the Mayor’s Town Hall meetings on the budget: Mayor Nutter and managing director Dr. Camille Barnett asking for a different kind of input.  They asked citizens to fill out a survey to give the budget team some information.  I don’t think this has ever been done before.

First they asked citizens to rate the importance of nine city services.  The survey results will tell the mayor which services were most important, but also each respondent’s passion for each item.

Second, they asked citizens about trade-offs: what they would cut -- in order to restore funding to something else.

The fact is: the Mayor is asking us, the citizens of Philadelphia, to make the kinds of hard choices he has to make.

But the Mayor and his team didn’t go far enough.  Yes, they asked us to share their thoughts, but nobody stopped to ask “why.” That’s an important issue – why.  Why is Kay willing to sacrifice the fire department in order to have more tax cuts?  Why did Jay give all of his points to licenses & inspections when we are forced to close libraries?

Citizens can do this kind of work together.  But they need structure and a veteran facilitator to guide them in their discussions.  Under the right conditions they can work through difficult trade-offs together.  This not only will help to solve our problems, but it will also create understanding and a sense of unity among different people from different cultures.  Not to mention, it might help the Mayor out.

It’s not too late to do this for the next round of budgeting in January or February. 

Why not give it a try?