Gorge project at a standstill
The spill way gorge public meeting held last Tuesday, November 30, took an unexpected turn midway through when facilitator, Steve Bonner, of the National Parks Service made an objection, withdrew from the project and left the meeting.
The meeting, hosted by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and the Comal County Water Oriented Recreation District was the second of two public meetings to be facilitated by Bonner as part of a grant from NPS's Rivers and Trails program obtained by GBRA.
Bonner's objection came when George Cushanick of WORD began his presentation by passing out drawings of plans that he and other members of the WORD board had designed. The NPS Rivers and Trails program offers assistance to communities seeking to conserve precious spaces with the understanding that it is a community project and input from that community is to be used in conceptual plans for the project.
"One of our strongest criteria for deciding where we provide assistance, is that partners must be committed to significant, meaningful public participation," said Bonner. " A requirement for our participation in the Spillway Gorge project was that the lead public agency partners (WORD and GBRA) would commit to following a process, at least in the two meetings I was to facilitate, that ensures maximum public input and the use of that input in preparation of conceptual designs. Both GBRA and WORD made such a commitment to me verbally."
Bonner's concern was that the WORD drawing was prepared outside the process he was invited to facilitate and without significant public input.
Copies of another drawing were pinned up along the wall for viewing. These drawings were presented by Jim Carrillo, vice president and director of planning of Halff Associates, an architectural and planning company. Carrillo has been involved in the planning and developing of many parks in Texas and holds a high interest in the gorge project. He offered his expertise and input on the project pro bono by working with GBRA to produce the drawing. When members of WORD offered their drawing for consideration, Bonner objected saying that WORD did not keep its commitment to NPS.
"All of the WORD staff and board members don't understand what happen," said Kay Cote, WORD Public Relations and Marketing Director. "There was a complete lack of communication. We did not know of Mr. Carrillo until that meeting."
Bonner said that he had not reviewed the WORD plan and could not assure the public that it was created with public input. He did, however, feel that the drawing provided by Carrillo was produced using the seven priorities gathered at the first public meeting on November 3.
"The ideas within the WORD plan may be very valid from a recreation and conservation planning perspective and should indeed be considered during the planning of the project," said Bonner.
NPS's Rivers and Trails projects usually begin with a considerable amount of public input. Conceptual plans are then drawn using that input and presented to the public for further comment.
"The WORD plan, in my professional opinion, should have been considered in that way," said Bonner. "When the WORD leadership refused to remove the document from the meeting I was facilitating, I felt that I had to defend the integrity of the public input process and the National Park Service and removed my organization from participation."
Many of those present were surprised at Bonner's reaction. Many at the meeting did not feel that Cushanick's presentation was out of line. After Bonner left, the majority of those present voted to see the WORD plan and Cushanick's Power Point presentation. Cushanick assured those present that these plans were not permanent, but ideas generated from the members of WORD. GBRA stood behind comments made by Bonner.
"We will be contacting WORD principals to discuss how to proceed with this important planning process," said Judy Gardner, GBRA Manager of Communications and Education.
At the end of the meeting and through the next week, no one from GBRA or WORD could say when another public meeting would be held. WORD invited the public to meetings usually held on the third Wednesday of every month at the CRRC in Sattler.