The Art Inventory

Penny Mabie Provides A Positive Process

by Kirby Lindsay, posted 29 December 2012


At the last public meeting on the Fremont Siphon, held at the Fremont Abbey, Penny Mabie stands between King County reps Will Sroufe and Monica Van der Vieren. Photo by K. Lindsay, Nov '12

In January 2013, on Saturday the 12th, King County Wastewater representatives will hold a workshop, from 10a – 2p, at B.F. Day Elementary School, for design of the on-land features of the replacement Fremont Siphon.  The public – particularly representatives of the Fremont and Queen Anne communities – is encouraged to attend.

Most attendees may not notice the hard work of Penny Mabie, and her team from EnviroIssues, who will facilitate the meeting and introduce the topics.  For a smoothly run process at this workshop, and “creating a space for everyone to be involved,” as Maibe describes it, is what she does.

Providing Public Involvement

On January 12th, EnviroIssues will be working on behalf of their client, King County, in assisting the public process on the replacement project.  “Our stake,” Maibe said of EnviroIssues, “is in good outcomes,” for the County and for the general public at the meeting.

EnviroIssues provides public outreach and communications support, often on sensitive and/or controversial projects.  The company, founded in 1990, provides facilitation – with experienced facilitators like Mabie – that brings communities, agencies, and decision-makers together to move the project forward.

At a public meeting on the Fremont Siphon, in Nov 2010, facilitator Mabie took a back seat (in the corner, in red) while Bill Cranston explained details of the project. Photo by K. Lindsay

Over the last few years, Mabie has facilitated Fremont through design of the new North Seattle Transfer Station and the safety barrier for the George Washington Memorial Bridge (a.k.a. Aurora.)  Most recently, she facilitated public meetings on the King County Siphon replacement – meetings that have been, so far, very calm and productive.

Meetings that also, at times, soar into technical jargon that can fly straight past many glazed-eyed participants.  For Mabie, part of her job is to understand these technical aspects, and help everyone (particularly the public) understand as well.  EnviroIssues deliberately employs people with technical backgrounds, along with good communication skills.

Providing Penny

Mabie brought her background in Solid Waste – working for the City of Olympia and the City of Tacoma – when she moved from public to private sector.  At EnviroIssues, she continues to works with some of the government agencies, but now help all of them reach out to the public.  She also can do training in facilitation and public involvement, sharing her skills with even more people.

“It’s as much about managing people,” Mabie recently explained about facilitating a public process.  She trains clients to be aware of our dual-value systems we bring to public meetings – our personal values and our process values.  People generally get involved in civic matters to defend a personal value, but they will also react if they feel a challenge to their values around process.  If someone feels the process is not open, transparent and/or respectful, it will hamper discussion and taint the decision making.

Penny Mabie provides skillful facilitation and public process for clients of EnviroIssues

“Decisions can be improved if they have considered people’s values, and concerns, and hopes,” Mabie observed.  If attendees walk away feeling, ‘you listened to me,’ the process was successful.  “We’re a neutral firm,” Mabie said about EnviroIssues.  For clients, they can smooth the way of the process – without being tied to one particular result.  Mabie could facilitate a design of a new Transfer Station, and a safety barrier for Aurora, without being professionally invested in the final design.

Rather, she cares about a good outcome; in allowing all the voices a chance to be heard.  She has had to help, sometimes, with, “recognizing that it is never going to be what everyone wants.”  Yet, she knows decisions can be improved, and projects enhanced, when the process includes listening.

Providing Facilitation, & Public Involvement

“We bring structure to the conversation,” Mabie observed on facilitators.  And, she explained, she is facilitating – not running – a meeting.

“Whenever I can,” she explained, “I go back to the audience and ask for their help.”  This is one of the ‘tricks’ Mabie can employ.  Others included watching body language, listening to the audience while a speaker talks, and arriving early to meetings to become familiar with the faces.

For those who find themselves facilitating, Mabie recommended, “Don’t speak the whole time.  As a neutral facilitator, I’m not there to give content.  As a neutral facilitator, I free up the content people to listen,” she explained.  If a meeting facilitator has to speak to a topic, they can’t listen, respond and be engaged – and facilitate.

During Q & A, Mabie held her comments and let Joe Clare, of King County Wastewater Treatment, provide the technical answer to a tricky question. Photo by K. Lindsay, May '12

Mabie admitted her work can leave her feeling schizophrenic, as she attempts to simultaneously stay in the moment and look ahead on the agenda, while tracking the time.  Facilitating is about balancing, she explained, and “trying to meet the needs of participants and the clients.”

For her, an agenda is key – both for time and topic management.  In her trainings, Mabie related, she will ask students if they’ve ever been in a meeting that went off-track – and nearly everyone has.  For those who do want to help put a derailed meeting back on track, she recommended being a facilitative participant.  This can mean flatly asking for an agenda, making a friendly observation of the time, or asking, politely, ‘do we have a plan?’ 

“My style doesn’t work for everybody,” Mabie acknowledged.  She gets called in on controversial issues a lot because she is, by her own account, thick-skinned and unflappable.  She likes to be firm, but also to use humor, carefully.  She can also be flexible, she explained, as “I’m not going to drive [the meeting] that way, just because that’s what the agenda says.  We’re outcome based facilitators,” Mabie said of EnviroIssues, “not process for the sake of process.”

In speaking with her, it becomes apparent that Mabie believes in public process, and in how it, “dispels the idea of government as a big, bad boogeyman.”  To be part of dispelling the boogeyman myth – and to help design a permanent facility for Fremont that we all can (and will) live with – attend the next Fremont Siphon meeting on January 12th at B.F. Day Elementary School from 10a – 2p.

“I wouldn’t be in the private sector,” Mabie said of her move from public works to EnviroIssues, and facilitating public involvement, “if I didn’t do work that has meaning.”  See what she means on Saturday, January 12th.

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©2012 Kirby Lindsay.  This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws.  Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.


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