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Penn State and State College Borough Partner to Promote Civic Engagement

by on November 29, 2014 6:00 AM

Imagine a world where every State College resident is an active participant in local government, with well-informed and well-rounded opinions about the state of the community. 

That’s a world Penn State Information Sciences and Technology instructor Jessica Kropczynski envisions, and she’s taking steps to make it a reality.

Kropczynski is a member of the Geodeliberation Project: a partnership between the College of IST and the State College Borough government. Their goal is to foster greater community involvement when it comes to making important decisions in the State College community.

“Municipal planning is an under-appreciated activity, not just in State College but all over the country,” Kropczynski says. “Most of the time it’s not until something groundbreaking is happening that people really decide to take action.”

She says citizens need to be involved with their government before groundbreaking decisions are made so they can shape the future of their town. The Geodeliberation Project works toward that objective by creating a forum for residents to come together and learn about issues facing the community.

Kropczynski says the project is based off a process used by the state of Oregon for its public referendums. Citizens are gathered randomly from across the state then brought together to hear experts discuss the issue in question and ask questions. After thorough debate and deliberation, each person writes a statement presenting their opinion on the issue. These statements are then mailed to every registered voter in the state, which helps give voters new context and perspective concerning issues on the ballot.

“We saw an opportunity to make that process more affordable and accessible by putting it online,” Kropczynski says.

With the support of the borough and the National Science Foundation, the Geodeliberation Project has been refining its process for how to bring people together and how to distribute the results through its website.

Kropczynski says that, unlike Oregon’s process, anyone who looks up the results of the citizen review process will also be able to see the materials that shaped the opinions of the citizens who were part of the forum.

This process has gone through a couple test runs, Kropczynski says. Project members brought State College residents together to discuss the State College Borough master plan and the school district’s high school renovation project, where they worked out some of the kinks in their system.

Now they’re on to their first “community issue review,” which Kropczynski says deals with an issue that directly impacts residents of the Highlands neighborhood. The project is gathering 20 randomly selected Highlands resident to serve as panelists to learn more about the issue, which will be revealed to the public in December.

Panelists will have the opportunity to hear from experts, learn more about the issue, and have their opinions made available to borough council and fellow residents. The public is invited to come observe the review sessions on December 1 and 8 at 6:00 p.m. in the municipal building.

Kropczynski says the Highlands review is the first of five panel sessions between now and May that will give residents the chance to shape the future of the borough.

“We hope to take on more planning activities,” Kropczynski says. “We want to let citizens weight in more and allow them to take more of a stance on the issues facing this community.” 

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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