The Bowling Green Civic Assembly: Report

In February 2018, we invited people who lived or worked in and around Bowling Green, Kentucky, to participate in a virtual town hall, the first stage in a longer ‘Civic Assembly’ hosted by The American Assembly and The Bowling Green Daily News.  This online forum was driven by Pol.is–a novel survey tool in which participants respond to statements made by each other.

Broadly, our goal was to give members of the community a framework in which they could articulate and share concerns, prompted by the question: “What do you believe should change in Bowling Green/Warren County in order to make it a better place to work, live, and spend time?”  Through the commenting and voting process, the virtual town hall painted a picture of community concerns, ranging from traffic to immigration to drugs sentencing, and of the lines of agreement and disagreement that run through them. 

For participants, the voting process looked like this:

 

Participants could agree, disagree, or pass.  Pol.is would then serve up the next statement. At any point, participants could also put statements of their own into the queue.

Over 11 days, 2,026 people participated.  403 of them submitted statements on issues ranging from traffic to education to immigration.  As the moderators, we rejected or rephrased roughly a third of the statements—usually in order to weed out duplicates, sometimes to improve clarity, and only very occasionally to eliminate inappropriate or joke statements.  

In the end, the Pol.is included 609 statements.  On average, participants voted on 111 statements each, resulting in a total of 225,460 votes!

Throughout this process, our goal was to maximize participation.  We spread word about the virtual town hall via an email campaign, media outreach, flyers, and by contacting government officials, directors of nonprofit organizations, educational leadership, clergy, and community groups.  In order to increase participant comfort with sharing opinions, we made the process open and anonymous.  Anyone could vote or comment. We did not collect personal or demographic information. We did, however, identify the zip codes associated with the IP addresses of participants in order to measure participation from outside the area. As a result, we can say with certainty that participation was overwhelmingly local to Bowling Green and the surrounding area.

This process had some important limitations.  First, although we publicized the event through a wide range of local networks, we made no attempt to ensure a randomized participant pool.  As a result, we cannot characterize the margin of error for particular statements or readily extrapolate them to the larger population.

Second, not all participants saw the same statements. Pol.is serves statements via an algorithm that favors both the most recently-submitted statements and those that already demonstrate high levels of engagement (i.e., few ‘passes’). In practice, however, statements submitted early in the process were more likely to win this sorting process and be seen by the most people.  With over 600 statements in the queue, most people saw only a small portion of the statements.

In the end, a substantial part of the local population participated in the event—some 2,000 participants in a county of around 123,000 people over 11 days (Bowling Green, where most of the participants were located, has 65,000 residents).  Participation was still growing when we closed the poll.

Out of this process, we identified areas of relative agreement and disagreement that emerged as participants voted on each other’s statements.   We then created opportunities for participants and local leadership to engage with and test the results against their own understandings of the issues and challenges facing the area.  To this end, we held a Town Hall and community workshop in late February.

This report is part of that process, too.

Consensus and Groups

Like any survey tool, Pol.is can show the vote totals for submitted statements.  But it can also identify, in real time, voting patterns that present a clearer picture of how agreement and disagreement are organized in a community.  In the case of Bowling Green, voting clustered into two groups (Group A and Group B), which tended to line up, respectively, with liberal and conservative perspectives on a number of the more divisive issues.  

Here is one of the ways that Pol.is represents this clustering (the dotted lines define the boundaries of two groups).  

Obviously, the clustering process is complex, and we won’t do a deep dive here. The most important thing to note is that every statement is numbered on the graph (001, 002, etc.) and that statements that received higher levels of agreement are closer to the middle of the bullseye. By the same token, the more contentious statements drift out to the edges. The blob in the middle indicates that participants generally agreed on most of the statements. Differences between the groups are formed by the smaller number of low-consensus statements toward the edges.  

Another way to look at the distribution of agreement and disagreement is via a ‘beehive diagram.’ The Pol.is technical report has a nice animated version that provides mouse-over detail about the statements.  The version below is just an image.

For our purposes, the key point is again that the overwhelming majority of statements are ‘high consensus’ statements on which nearly everyone agreed—without major differences across the two groups.  Nearly all of these deal with ‘quality of life’ issues: traffic, zoning, services and amenities, and so on. The divisive comments relate primarily to a handful of social issues, including immigration and refugees, adoption of a local fairness ordinance (LGBTQ rights), and drug policy.  What’s the most divisive statement in this context?


                                             Overall         Group A        Group B

How Should I Read These Bar Charts?

The first thing to keep in mind is that not every participant sees every statement.  Pol.is distributes the attention of participants across a spectrum of statements, favoring the most recent and the most highly engaged statements.  Although it’s possible to respond to them all—and a few people came close to doing so—most people stopped before completing all 609.

In the case of the sanctuary city statement, among the 1578 people who voted at least 7 times, 1138 saw the statement.  Among these, 31 percent overall agreed, 41 percent disagreed, and 27 percent passed.

 

The white section on the right represents the number of people who didn’t see the statement.

The Group A and B breakdowns follow the same logic but are based on participants who voted at least seven times (seven is the mathematical threshold that allows Pol.is to identify groups).  1,578 participants did so. Groups A and B, accordingly, are subgroups of the 1,578 and of slightly different sizes: (liberal) Group A has 751 members; (conservative) Group B has 827.

Given the multiple sources of uncertainty in this process, it’s important not to read too much into the exact breakdowns of the group votes.  The main takeaway is that the sanctuary city issue helps define a larger structure of disagreement in the community. It is perhaps not very surprising that the major disagreements play into familiar categories of left and right.  What may be more surprising is the range of issues on which people substantially agree.

Consensus

Because the Pol.is survey is generated by its participants, it has the potential to go in any direction.  There are no fixed questions or topics. There are, however, loose forms of path dependency as participants build up an impression of the process based on the statements they initially encounter.  For our part, we provided a framing question designed to encourage respondents to think locally. We asked: “What do you believe should change in Bowling Green/Warren County in order to make it a better place to work, live, and spend time.”  With the help of the Bowling Green Daily News, we also added a number of starter statements in order to prime the pump.

By all appearances, the framing statement had a powerful effect.  Most of the statements referenced very local community issues—traffic, development, zoning, school and municipal governance, and others.  Some were local inflections of issues with wider state and national profiles—a debate over passing a fairness ordinance in the city and drug sentencing, for example.  Only a few referenced state, federal, or international decision making or policy areas. The subsequent Town Hall and workshop retained this focus. Overall, the Civic Assembly dealt with issues that participants thought could be addressed locally.

The Results

The rest of this report presents selections of statements from the survey that speak to some of the major lines of participant concern, with a focus on statements that received relatively high levels of participant engagement.  We highlight areas of agreement first, and then move into areas of disagreement.

This is not a complete or exhaustive account.  If you’d like to dig deeper into the full results, see the Pol.is technical report.

High Consensus Topics

On the great majority of issues related to quality of life, governance, services, local economic issues, and development, there is a very high level of agreement among residents of Bowling Green. Most of these statements can be grouped into a few categories.

Traffic and Transportation

Participants submitted dozens of statements about traffic and transportation in and around Bowling Green.  Nearly everyone agrees about the need to better manage car traffic in town, with Scottsville Road as the most frequently identified problem area by a wide margin.  There is also strong—though not as overwhelming—support for better accommodation of alternative means of transportation, including public transportation, walking, and biking.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Traffic flow needs to be improved throughout Bowling Green, especially on Scottsville Road.

Impact on traffic flow should be considered with any proposed new developments.

The city should actually time stoplights correctly during rush hour to prevent complete gridlock

We need a real bus system.

Need more bike lanes and biker friendly resources.

Our sidewalks need more connectivity. It’s too piecemealed and makes some areas unusable.

Build and improve sidewalks in the area of Magnolia Street and 13th to Cabell Drive area for the heavy pedestrian traffic there.

When resurfacing a roadway, attention should be given to making the manhole covers level with the new surface.

 

Zoning and Local Development

Participants also demonstrated very high levels of support for downtown revitalization and greater development of the riverfront. Group differences on these issues were small.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Continue downtown development to the river. Tourists always seek out parks & restaurants near water.

I would like to see a shift in city planning and zoning to make BG a more walkable city with better sidewalk planning

There isn’t enough here to draw young families. We need a beautification of the riverfront and a more walkable city for young professionals.

We are loosing the city’s long established neighborhoods to multi family developments that do not fit in with the single family residences.

I would like to see a revitalization of older parts of Bowling Green, by giving home improvement grants to home owners. Approval process req.

Downtown redevelopment should retain accessible parking for existing businesses.

Zoning changes should only be made with the consent of a majority of the neighbors in the affected area.

The entire bypass area is an eyesore and there needs to be a concerted effort like a TIF to revitalize this crucial part of town.

Cable and Broadband Service

Dissatisfaction with existing cable and broadband services—especially on issues of pricing—was also a subject of very strong agreement. Participants overwhelmingly favored proposals to increase competition in both markets. Nearly as many favored price regulation and/or municipal control of broadband services.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Bowling Green needs more competitive cable rates.

More choices when it comes to internet. BGMU has been offering service to businesses for a while, they should expand to offer to residents.

Cable companies need competition and not be allowed to raise rates of customers. Once you sign on, that is your rate unless you upgrade.

Our city should make a bid for Google Fiber to help compete with Spectrum and AT&T.

Internet services should be a public municipality.

Increase Internet/Cell/Phone service throughout the county. First deal with areas that currently don’t have any option.

 

Government Transparency and Accountability

Proposals to increase government transparency and accountability also received very high levels of support, with particular concern for reducing opportunities for self-dealing and insider influence in local development initiatives. Differences between the two groups were minimal.

Overall

Group A

Group B

City/County officials with connections to a project or proposal should abstain from voting on the project or proposal.

Local elected government officials should not be able to hold a seat and also be on the TIF board or other unelected boards.

City/county officials should disclose to the public via Daily News all connections they have to a project or proposal well before the vote.

I should be able to vote in city elections if I pay city taxes, even though I may live in the county.

Officials that use social media accounts in a professional capacity should not be allowed to block constituents except under rare conditions like being threatened.

Term limits should be initiated on county executives.

More citizens need to be involved in the future development of BG. Too many developers who benefit financially are calling the shots.

 

Jobs and Job Training

Concern for job training and job quality was also strong and widely shared. Several statements also noted the strong job market in the area, with unemployment currently running at 4.1 percent.

Overall

Group A

Group B

The main purpose of higher education is job training.

Develop a manufacturing Work training program for jail inmates that qualify.

We should be incentivizing higher paying jobs coming to BG. Cost of living is outrunning wages and it’s starting to be a problem.

We need jobs to attract our own college educated students so they don’t leave to get better paying jobs.

WKU and local community colleges should continue to offer courses that interest those seeking an education, whether or not the courses aid in job placement.

 

Community Services and Activities

Proposals for increased cultural and community-building activities tended to receive high levels of support, though these sometimes divided Group B.

Overall

Group A

Group B

We need more things to do for ages 1-6. A children’s museum or a small science museum would be wonderful.

I would like to see more community art and music programs. For instance, I would love to sign up for a community choir.

More youth programs are needed to bring the community together: volunteer organizations, community service, innovative creations labs.

Bowling Green needs Community Enrichment Classes that include woodworking, welding, gardening and general home beautification for hobbyist.

Affordable supports for the elderly and aging population are needed in our community.

 

Groceries

Statements favoring the relocation or opening of certain stores in Bowling Green were common. Among these, the most common theme was the need for better grocery options.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Bowling Green needs to attract business like Costco and Trader Joe’s to keep residents from driving to Nashville on weekends.

Bring a discount grocer to the downtown area.

We need a health food store.

We need a WHOLE FOOD store.

 

Trash and Littering

Littering is clearly a widely shared concern in the area, but only a few of the statements submitted on the issue arrived early enough to receive substantial attention. Nonetheless, participants appear to have consistent views about the need for stronger anti-littering measures and programs.

Overall

Group A

Group B

BG has a bad problem with littering. My husband and I fill up to five recycle bins every week between downtown and campus, cleaning it all up.

Mandatory, expensive fines should be implemented for littering and illegal dumping.

BG needs to increase recycling and trash bins around the parks and parkways to decrease trash and litter.

Bowling Green should consider a program, like Ft Worth Texas’s Clean Slate, in which the homeless can earn money by cleaning up the city.

 

Wet and Dry

Several statements addressed the issue of “moist” liquor policy in Warren County, which permits alcohol sales in Bowling Green but not the surrounding area. Most participants support a change to “wet” laws.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Warren county needs to be “wet.” The city is wet but the county is dry.

 

Homelessness

Some issues occupied a middle ground typically marked by strong agreement in Group A and split opinions in Group B. Homelessness, school funding, policing, rent laws, and drug sentencing fall into this category.

Overall

Group A

Group B

No family should be homeless in Bowling Green / Warren County, and it is up to our officials to make sure they have options for shelter.

Homelessness is for the nonprofit sector to deal with, not government.

I would like to see part of the downtown area converted to an “art district.” Something similar to the Wynnwood Walls in Miami, FL.

There is no reason not to spend six cents per $100 to eliminate homelessness for hundreds of school children.

 

Metro Area Governance

Overall

Group A

Group B

Bowling Green & Warren Co. should consolidate into a metro.

 

Local Schools

Overall

Group A

Group B

All students in Warren county should have the best available education, not the Kentucky minimum, at all times.

The arts are an important component of K-12 education.

Local schools should help make up the pension fund crisis by learning to live with budget cuts.

If private schools were to get a share of Federal or State education dollars, it would hurt public schools.

The city and county school systems should merge.

If strict dress codes are required, uniforms should be provided by the school system, not eat into the parents possibly small budget.

 

Western Kentucky University’s Budget Crisis

Overall

Group A

Group B

University management bears more responsibility than federal and state education funding cuts for tuition rising so much over the years.

Cutting a major sports program would be the best way for WKU to deal with budget cuts without harming academics.

 

Policing

Overall

Group A

Group B

Crime is worse in Bowling Green / Warren County than it was a decade ago.

Law enforcement in Bowling Green and Warren county needs more minority representation.

Local law enforcement would benefit from additional training in community relations.

Extra police, or parking enforcement unit should be on duty during events to maintain legal parking.

 

Drug Sentencing

Overall

Group A

Group B

In order to better combat the opioid epidemic, it is time to view drug addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal justice problem.

Law enforcement should send drug possession arrestees for rehabilitation services rather than imprisonment.

Harsher sentences for drug users would help combat the opioid epidemic.

More nonviolent inmates convicted of drug possession should be set free.

 

Rent Laws

Overall

Group A

Group B

Stronger tenant and renters rights. Landlord accountability for keeping properties in good shape. So many overpriced dilapidated rentals.

Enact rent control laws to stabilize the constant increase in rates.

 

Employment and Wages

Several issues proved especially divisive and played a large role in defining the two groups. These include the minimum wage, immigration and refugees, marijuana legalization, and LGBTQ rights as expressed in the proposed ‘fairness ordinance.’

Overall

Group A

Group B

Higher minimum wage.

Minimum wage required for businesses to receive tax credits should be raised to a living wage.

 

Immigration and Refugees

Participants are very divided on the subject of immigration and refugees, with very high levels of support in Group A and high levels of skepticism and/or opposition in Group B. This division is starkest on the question of whether a city should be able to declare itself a sanctuary city. It extends to requirements that refugees learn English, but softens with regard to possible measures to help immigrant and refugee students learn about and adapt to American culture. The proposal that schools have a year or more of special language and culture classes garnered majority support.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Our local immigrant population has, overall, been a benefit to our city and county.

Refugee neighbors enrich our city’s landscape and we should find more ways to welcome and integrate them into the life of the city.

A city should have the right to declare itself a sanctuary city.

Refugees should be required to learn and speak English.

City/County schools should have a minimum one year classroom for immigrant and refugee students so they can learn English, culture and laws.

 

Marijuana Legalization

The legalization of marijuana for recreational use is another highly polarizing topic, with strong support in Group A and strong opposition in Group B. Legal use for medicinal purposes enjoys considerably stronger support—reaching near parity in Group B. A late-submitted statement proposing the regulated legalization of other drugs (excluding meth) was not heavily subscribed, but the available results suggest little support for the position.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Medical marijuana should be legal.

Recreational marijuana should be legal.

Legalizing marijuana would be a boon for the economy.

Industrial hemp should be re-legalized to grow in Kentucky.

Most drugs except meth should be free & government controlled. See Belgium.

 

The Fairness Ordinance

A strong majority of participants, including a majority of Group B, agreed with the proposition that people should not face discrimination based on sexual orientation. Opinion was much more sharply split, however, over whether such discrimination was a serious public concern and whether it should be formally recognized in law (via the proposed ‘Fairness Ordinance’). These statements provided some of the defining divisions between Groups A and B.

Overall

Group A

Group B

People in Bowling Green should not be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation.

It is embarrassing that our city is the largest in the state not to have a fairness ordinance.

NO to the “Fairness” Ordinance. Current law is sufficient. ZERO reported instances where LGBTQ people have been discriminated against in BG.

LGBTQ fairness is far-left political idiocy.

 

Last Words

There were many interesting statements that belonged to no clear larger thread or theme. We’ll conclude with some of the standouts.

Overall

Group A

Group B

Leash laws should be more strictly enforced in both the city and county.

Driver’s education needs to be more thorough and mandatory before 16 year olds are even allowed to drive home from the courthouse.

Most journalists strive to be factual and unbiased, whether or not they succeed in all their writing.

Big names and corporations get away with too much. We need fairer regulation and level playing fields for the small and big guys alike.

I regularly discuss politics with people I disagree with.

People want it all, without paying for anything. A healthy community requires taxes people.

Bowling Green is an excellent place to raise a family, shop, worship, get an education, and recreate. I feel safe in most places here in BG.

We need an NBA team. I think we should put the arena where the airport is. Think about it.

People thought about it and said no.