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A Citizen-Based Strategic Planning Process

From the International City/County Managers Association’s Local Government Matters e-newletter, August 18, 2008

Gladstone, Missouri, Kirk L. Davis, city manager, has long been a leader in the area of innovative management styles and programs, as well as a strong proponent of citizen participation in city programs. Recognizing that the community’s long-term sustainability depends on strong community involvement, in 2003 the city decided to implement a citizen-based strategic planning process. The goal was to develop a 20-year strategic plan that would address current needs as well as plan for the future.

In July 2003, the city council approved a citizen-based project to evaluate conditions within the city and recommend a long-range plan to ensure continued prosperity. The National Civic League served as facilitator for the project, and the council established an initiating committee to identify citizens from a large cross-section of the community to participate in the plan’s development. No council members or city staff were on the committee or involved in the planning discussions: the goal was to provide an environment in which citizens could voice their concerns and evaluate potential solutions without being influenced by the political concerns of elected officials. Since the group inception in August 2003, more than a hundred community leaders have taken advantage of this opportunity.

“Gladstone on the Move: Citizens Making a Difference” was the phrase chosen to identify these leaders and describe their goals and objectives. Participants met 10 times as a large group and countless other times in small discussion groups. First they crafted a mission statement to describe what Gladstone should be in 20 years. They then divided into subcommittees focused on six key performance areas—business and economic development, neighborhoods, civic and community center, city services, education and identity, and regionalism—to research, discuss, prioritize and submit proposals to the entire group for consideration. An implementation committee was then formed to provide a coordinated and realistic timeline in which to achieve the tasks and goals, as well as to identify potential funding sources.

The report of Gladstone on the Move identified many priorities on which the participants wanted to focus more of the city’s energy and resources. Near the end of the process, however, the group learned that the company that was providing backup emergency medical services within Gladstone would no longer be available, a change in service that would cost the city an additional $600,000 per year. Thus, taking the imminent needs of its aging population into consideration, the city had to find a definite funding source for the long-term provision of these services, as well as for the implementation of the citizen-based strategic plan.
The subcommittee on city services determined that in order to maintain a viable organization and infrastructure, the city’s property tax base and property tax revenues needed to increase. They agreed that no additional sales tax should be imposed on Gladstone residents, but recommended that the five-cent fire sales tax that would end in June 2006 be continued with no sunset to fund major improvements, including a new community center. The implementation committee also recommended a property tax increase to fund the additional ambulance service and strategic planning priorities.

Gladstone on the Move brought its recommendations to the city council, which accepted them. The council also voted to proceed with both tax recommendations, asking voters to continue the expiring fire protection sales tax as a parks and recreation sales tax and to approve a $0.39 property tax increase. The group’s strategic planning committee became the tax campaign committee, organizing a grass-roots letter-writing campaign, creating signs, and holding several public presentations to bring their case to the public. On February 8, 2005, Gladstone’s voters approved the sales tax with nearly 69 percent of the vote, and the property tax increase—the first in 52 years—with 57 percent. Truly the citizens and businesses of Gladstone felt empowered through Gladstone on the Move to have a part in directing their future.
Today Gladstone on the Move remains active. Its implementation committee meets regularly with city staff for progress reports and project updates, and new community leaders have come forward, ensuring the long-term sustainability of the community. Today, there are sidewalks in some areas for the first time; new streetlights are being installed each year, with the goal of having one on each city block; three ambulances are in place, each staffed with two paramedics; and a new fire station centrally located on the west side provides for improved response times to that part of the city. The city is hosting its first Future Leaders Academy to continue to educate the people about municipal government and planning and to identify additional community leaders.

This program demonstrates the success of strategic leadership and governance. With a 20-year strategic plan in place, a citizens’ implementation committee, and ongoing budgeted items that address the plan, long-term success will be real and viable for Gladstone.

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