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By Douglas Moran

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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Neighborhood Associations: Why they are still important

Uploaded: Mar 10, 2015
The recent news coverage of the difficulties facing one of Palo Alto's premier neighborhood association (College Terrace) brought forth comments that such associations have been rendered unnecessary by social media, such as Nextdoor.com.(foot#1) Such comments represent a very shallow and narrow perspective on what a neighborhood is. Social networking is very good for seeking simple information from "the crowd", such as recommendations for a plumber or reuniting a lost pet with its family. But it rarely is adequate for bigger issues, especially ones requiring concerted action over an extended period. These problems with social networking being equated with true activism is such that it has its own names, such as "Slacktivism" and "Clicktivism".

"Strengthening City Engagement with Neighborhoods" is one of Mayor Holman's priorities for the year and she has joined with three other Council members (Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, Pat Burt, Cory Wolbach) in a proposal on the March 16 Council agenda.(foot#2) Part of this is outreach meetings. While this is laudable, having productive meetings is difficult and requires lots of work and planning. In other cities doing this?for example Mountain View?these meetings reportedly can turn out to be little more than a series of individuals from that neighborhood who talk in turn about their individual issues, with the result of the meeting being a long staff report providing isolated responses to those complaints and suggestions.(foot#3) That is, the meetings are in the neighborhoods, but not with the neighborhoods.

My experience?from 19 years on the Board of the Barron Park Association including six as President and five as Vice President(foot#4) ?is that for such meetings to be productive there needs to be substantial involvement in planning, execution and follow-up by some form of leadership from the neighborhood.

My intention with this posting is to provide a foundation for neighborhood leaders and others to provide their perspectives. So if you are an early reader of this, please return to see the comments, or you can sign-up for email notifications of new comments (at the end of this page).

For those unaware of the important differences between a Neighborhood/Residents Association, henceforth "neighborhood association" and a Homeowners Association (HOA), there is an explanation at the end.

Be aware that in Palo Alto, neighborhoods tend to be self-defining and "flexible". There may be no exact, agreed-upon boundaries: City Hall's boundaries may be different from those used by various real estate agents and from the newspapers and from the residents themselves. And residents may disagree among themselves as to where the boundaries are, that is, which neighborhood they live in.

Neighborhood associations can function at multiple levels, and which activities they actually focus on varies by their circumstances?their needs, opportunities?and the availability of volunteers to pursue them.

Social Activities
The declining sense of community has long been an issue of concern and discussion.(foot#5) Those that would claim that online interactions can supplant face-to-face interactions should look at the experience of tech companies with virtual teams. While a lot can be done in cyberspace, they have found no substitute for periodic physical interactions, to the extent that they accept the cost in time and money to fly in distant team members. Bi-weekly to monthly physical meetings is what I have been hearing regarded as the minimum.(foot#6)

Events where neighbors can meet and informally interact have become more important as previous opportunity decline. For example, encountering someone you know in a store has become rare enough to be remarked-upon for many?we are shopping at increasingly distant B&M stores and online (Farmers Markets have become one of the significant places where neighbors encounter each other).

With lives being so busy, parents of children focus their social networks on similar parents. As a test of who knows whom, ask a parent for the names of adult neighbors who don't have children, and vice versa. My experience is that the results are depressing.(foot#7)

Experience and "Corporate Knowledge"
Those who haven't organized a neighborhood event?something larger than a block party?tend to seriously underestimate what is needed. But even that estimate may be so daunting that few are willing to take it on. This task becomes more manageable if there is a reservoir of experience and reliable volunteers to draw on.(foot#8) The organizers of my neighborhood's primary social event created, and maintain, a notebook of instructions, checklists and other resources to simplify the task, whether it is them or a new person handling the next iteration. A neighborhood association is the prime candidate for this function, in large part because of the overlap with many of the other aspects of a neighborhood being a community and not just a label on a map.

Dealing with City Hall
Having a known group of people experienced in dealing with City Hall can help residents get their problems addressed by telling them who to contact and how to present the problem. The "how" is often crucial. For example, simply using the correct terminology can make all the difference?wrong terminology can result in City Hall thinking that the problem is not something that they can address. Similarly for knowing which potential solutions are practical and which are implausible. And the solution may be a good-enough workaround that the resident wouldn't have thought of.

Among the active neighborhood associations, it is not uncommon for a member of the core group to act as the advocate/representative of the resident in dealing with such problems. This can simplify the interaction with City Hall and has the added benefit of adding credibility to the request or complaint (because the neighborhood leader is a "known quantity").

Corporate knowledge on neighborhood issues
One step up from this is the benefit of having a known group of people with knowledge and experience with neighborhood issues. They become initial points-of-contact for City Hall, the press, developers? This allows local situations and concerns to be considered at early stages in the process?when such have the best chances of having impact. The existence of such expertise also "incentivizes" City Hall to factor in those concerns (to reduce conflict later in the process). Some in City Hall will also take advantage of this expertise in planning for more effective public outreach meetings.

The expertise gained working issues for your neighborhood may also get you appointed by City Hall to a citizens advisory group, although residents who interact with City Hall primarily through neighborhood associations?as opposed to single-issue advocacy groups?are woefully under-represented on such panels.

"Meaningful Notification"
Many of the announcements coming from City Hall, and other organizations, fail to provide residents with enough information to know whether the topic of the meeting is important to them, and even if it does, those announcements typically fail to give residents the information needed to participate effectively. Some of this is the result of a failure to adapt from a time of hardcopy announcements, physical bulletin boards and newspaper column-inches (subject of a recent blog post). But it can also represent a desire to minimize involvement by residents.

Many of these announcements could benefit from a resident's perspective. First, reformatting to be appropriate for email, especially mobile, both for initial reading and for later searching. Second, translating and/or explaining jargon. Third, reorganizing and highlighting to focus on those aspects of particular interest to the neighborhood. Fourth, adding links to additional information that would be useful to people attending the event.(foot#9)

Unfortunately, in this era of hyper-partisanship, this has proven to be highly controversial, and consequently some neighborhoods simply forward the announcements they receive.(foot#10) If a neighborhood wants to have these improved notifications, it needs to have a (small) group of widely respected people to produce them, and a somewhat larger group to support them against the inevitable attacks.

Note: The term "meaningful notification" is one I have used in earlier writings (for example, "Visioning or Potemkin Villages?"). While this term hasn't caught on, I haven't seen any suitable alternatives.

Discussion Moderation
Many online issue-oriented discussion groups have recognized the destructive effects of various categories of "bad actors" (trolls, bullies?) and have moved to tighter moderation and regulation. Some have shut down in frustration. Neighborhoods are geographically compact enough that they have the capability to keep these "bad actors" in check. But it requires agreement on what is appropriate and a willingness to follow through. And it requires residents to put civility ahead of "tribalism"?for example, if someone demonizes those that disagree with him, you shouldn't tolerate/defend that conduct because you agree with the offender on that issue.

Even on discussion lists/groups where individual submissions are not moderated, it is valuable to have moderators acting behind the scenes, and occasionally publicly, because participants often forget to honor the wide range of discussion styles, with the more aggressive/abrasive styles driving others away from the group.(foot#11)

Issue Advocacy
"Issue advocacy" encompasses much more than asking City Council to make a particular decision/vote. It can also involve advocating for more attention or priority be given to certain issues or perspectives. For example, it has long been neighborhood associations at the forefront of trying to protect retail (one of Mayor Holman's announced priorities).(foot#12) The neighborhoods that do engage in issue advocacy have varying criteria, such as limitations on categories of issues, how to determine levels of support for positions and thresholds required (often super-majorities). Even when the association itself doesn't take a position on an issue, its "corporate knowledge and experience" can help groups of residents be more effective in presenting their cases and having their perspectives taken more seriously.

Emergency Preparedness
Emergency preparedness was a major topic in the comments on the PA Weekly article.(foot#1) Some of the commenters believed that neighborhoods would easily come together in such events. My experiences in one of the hardest hit areas of Hurricane Agnes (1972) were to the contrary. It was a town where most everyone knew each other?it was common for children to grow up within walking distance of at least one set of grandparents. The difference was immediately apparent between groups that were "just neighbors" and those that had experience working as a team: Teenage boys played an outsized role because their groups tended to be geographically concentrated and consequently were trivially assembled into teams where everyone knew how to work together (Self-organized athletics were a big part of our growing up. It not only taught us team-building and leadership skills, but allowed us to sort out who was appropriate for what roles).

Invalid Criticisms of Neighborhood Associations
In discussions of neighborhood associations, it is virtually inevitable that someone will declare opposition to the general concept based upon such-and-such particular neighborhood association not doing enough or doing something they disagree with. This often comes from people who have not displayed the slightest willingness to participate. Recognize that neighborhood associations are groups of volunteers and what they can do is largely dictated by the interests and capabilities of those volunteers. It is invalid to criticize a neighborhood association for not doing something if there aren't the volunteers to do it.

There are also pseudo neighborhood associations where an individual, or small group of individuals, have declared themselves to be representatives of the neighborhood without making any real attempt at outreach. Recognize that this happens only in the absence of any attempt by the residents to have an actual neighborhood association.

----Appendices----

A. Terminology: Neighborhood/Residents Association vs. HomeOwners Association (HOA)
As their names are meant to convey, neighborhood/residents associations are for the residents of that neighborhood, be they homeowners or renters. There can be some overlap between neighborhood associations and homeowners associations. Some housing complexes with homeowners associations are large enough, and separate enough, to be treated as neighborhoods and consequently the homeowners association does double duty as the neighborhood association. For smaller complexes, the residents typically see themselves as part of the larger neighborhood.

One way to think about the difference is to recognize that homeowners associations are corporate bodies for condo complexes and similar developments tasked with managing shared assets (common rooms, landscaping, parking facilities?) and consequently are composed of the owners of those tangible assets. The assets that neighborhood associations attempt to manage tend to be intangibles, such as a "sense of community". In Palo Alto, neighborhood associations have no legal standing or legal powers. Whatever power they do have comes from the efforts and credibility of their volunteers and the willingness of neighborhood residents to support the association.

B. DUES and the Neighborhood Association as Venture Capitalist
Membership and dues seem to be an unavoidable part of any discussion on neighborhood associations, partly because there are always people who insist on conflating neighborhood associations with homeowners associations (and government). Palo Alto neighborhood associations have two basic models for defining membership, but for most residents, there is no practical difference. One model has all residents of the neighborhood as automatically members of the association, with dues/contributions being voluntary. This is to avoid causing residents to be reluctant to participate because they haven't paid dues ("aren't members"). The other model is that members are those who explicitly choose to join the association and pay modest dues (typically $5-20 annually), but virtually all activities are open to all residents. My neighborhood's association (Barron Park) is in the latter category and its primary members-only benefit is a hardcopy newsletter (the online version is free).

The terminology of "dues" creates conflicting expectations. It has the positive of encouraging a stronger sense of connection to the association than terms such as "contribution", but it has the negative that it can foster a sense that the resident has paid for a level of services far beyond what could reasonably expected for the amount.

An interesting alternative way to think of the Board (leadership) of a neighborhood association is as a venture capital firm, with dues and contributions as the funds to be invested in worthy neighborhood activities. People with ideas for an activity bring them to that Board, which evaluates the plan, helps them improve it, connects them with others with useful experience and skills? Often some of the members of the association's board join the leadership for the event (similar to a VC sitting on the board of a start-up). If an activity is successful, it can qualify for additional rounds of funding. Some activities are regarded as inherently needing funding from the associations, others are encouraged to become increasingly self-supporting (for example, selling refreshments or selling advertising of neighborhood business on programs for the event).

---- Footnotes ----
1. College Terrace association faces uncertain future, PA Weekly, 2015-02-08.

2. Palo Alto leaders propose neighborhood-liaison program: Council members say communication with residents could improve, PA Weekly, 2015-02-28.

3. One hears lots of positive comments about such meetings. But if one listens carefully, it seems to be a reaction to going from being nearly totally ignored to being simply largely ignored?which admittedly is a decided improvement.

4. For those interested in a "rawer", more contemporaneous version of these thoughts, these are articles relating to my tenure on the Barron Park Association (BPA) Board. I wrote two articles for the BPA Newsletter upon becoming President. The first addressed the general role of the BPA (Community Update, Spring 2002 issue). The second addressed participation by residents in the BPA (President's Message, Summer 2002 issue). These topics were revisited in a profile of me published after my resignation from the Board (Spring 2014 issue, pages 8-12, "Doug Moran and a history of evolution in the BPA"). An explanation of how the BPA interacted with other neighborhood associations was the subject of President's Message of Summer 2003 issue with a minor subsequent "Looking Back" (end of President's Update, Winter 2005).

5. One entry point for these discussions is the 2000 book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community". You can do web search on the term "bowling alone" (with quotes) to find endless discussion. Or a search for that book on a site such as Amazon.com will also return a list of recommendations of other books on this topic.

6. The little formal research I have seen on this isn't helpful except to validate the problem: The researchers didn't have access to enough teams in enough situations to draw general conclusions. However, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence from those participating in these virtual teams about their experience experimenting to find what helped (and what didn't).

7. There is another interesting sub-community within neighborhoods: People who walk their dogs. They often don't know/remember each other's real names, but refer to them relative to the dog's name ("Fido's mom", "Spot's family/people"). You also see some of this among parents ("Jane's father").

8. "Reliable" is a crucial qualifier to "volunteer" for important events. Unreliable volunteers are a major reason that someone willing to take on a leadership for a repeating event resigns either before or just after the first one. It is not just people who over-estimate the amount of time they will be able to dedicate to the effort (good intentions, poor execution), but the screw-ups, those for whom it seems to be a point of honor to go against the advice of those with more experience? and my "favorite": people who take responsibility for a crucial function despite having plans to be unavailable (vacation?) during critical times. Information such as who is and isn't reliable usually requires a level of social connection and trust between the parties?something that is not created by a few mundane posts on a social networking site.

9. This is a lot of work if it is being done for each neighborhood in isolation. Fortunately, there is a lot of opportunity for sharing and collaboration to make this workload practical (via the Internet). Unfortunately, many of the people who could do this are adverse to this style of interaction.

10. Hyper-partisanship: There are people for whom theirs are the facts and everything else is denounced as biased advocacy. If you try to explain the various perspectives surrounding an issue, they will be upset at the inclusion of perspectives contrary to their own. One can even be attacked for a simple list of links to past PA Weekly articles on a subject should those articles not be favorable to their position.

11. This is an online version of interpersonal distances in face-to-face discussions. When I arrived at college, I was amazed at how many of the kids from Mediterranean cultures (especially those from New York City) were unaware of this concept and were persistently invading other's personal space, failing to pick up on obvious cues that they should take a step back. In online discussions, these cues are often missing: People offended by the conduct of others simply cease participation. In discussions about moderation policy, I find it helpful to pick two extreme stereotypes: a 25-year-old male with an advanced degree in high tech who has recently immigrated from Israel and a retired Scandinavian-American kindergarten teacher who has recently moved here from rural Minnesota to be with her grandchildren. Strong moderation/leadership is needed because there are more than a few whose response to being told of the negative reactions to their style reply "This is who I am. It is up to others to adapt to me."

12. Retail protection: During the Dot-Com bubble, there was the same conversion of first-floor retail spaces to offices that we are seeing today. And the same reluctance by City Hall to enforce zoning and to update zoning in response to the changing situation. Pressure from the neighborhood associations led to a belated moratorium. When the promised follow-up of policy changes failed to materialize, Palo Alto Neighborhoods (an umbrella group of neighborhood associations) organized A Forum on Retail Services in Palo Alto (2003-07-31) that restored attention to the issue. When Bern Beecham became Mayor in 2004, he established an ad hoc Committee on Retail that produced a useful set of priorities and recommendations that mostly died in the bureaucratic "tar pits" after he left office.
Disclosure: I was one of the organizers of that forum and served on the mayor's Retail committee.

----
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

Comments

 +   4 people like this
Posted by Douglas L. Graham, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 10, 2015 at 2:29 pm

There is a lot to chew on in your article, Doug. I have tried to express most of these ideas in relevant situations and at appropriate times during my 42-year participation in Barron Park community affairs, but have never even come close to putting it all together in such a eloquent and cogent document. I hope this gets wide distribution. Thanks and congratulations for your contributions.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton,
on Mar 10, 2015 at 3:30 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Doug - Thank you for a thoughtful, provocative and well written treatise.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Lydia Kou, a resident of Barron Park,
on Mar 11, 2015 at 3:10 pm

I am lucky to live in a neighborhood -- Barron Park -- with a strong, established neighborhood association. It had a significant impact on the quality of life in the Barron Park neighborhood. Not just my opinion, but that of many of my neighborhoods.

Shortly after I became a member of my neighborhood's association, I was recruited to join the Board to help with Emergency Preparedness but I soon took on additional responsibilities. Without the people on the Board, I would have had difficulty being effective. They provided mentoring, advice, historical background and additional support. They had created an effective communication channel to much of the neighborhood. And the sense of community made it easier to recruit volunteers.

Becoming a Board member was pivotal for me, I found out that my neighborhood meant a lot to me? more than just the place I bought a house and lived. It was my home and my community. My children went to school here and their friends? parents watched out for them and I watched out for their children; it is where when I was sick, my neighbor stopped by with a pot of soup and bread; it was where we really borrowed a cup of sugar or eggs from neighbors; it was where over our neighborhood email distribution list that neighbors asked to borrow tools/equipment (long before there was a Nextdoor); it was where neighbors called and said hey, what are you doing for breakfast, come over, even in your PJs and let?s have some breakfast. The neighborhood is where at neighborhood social events organized by the neighborhood association with the community?s help, we met up with people and caught up or met someone new. The association's quarterly newsletter helped maintain a sense of community with a range of article, with history articles (by Doug Graham) being both popular and informative. More than that, it is through my neighborhood association that I learnt about governance and it is where I found my passion and the necessity of civic engagement.

I would like to endorse much of what is in the blog posting. Doug Moran was the president of the Barron Park Association during my first years on the Board. He and his predecessors upheld the neighborhood association?s vital role in representing the interests of the residents and enhancing the local community. Particularly with Doug, his communication style with providing information to the neighborhood is to give a 2-sided view, that which government is looking to push forth and for us as residents how it would affect us.

Today, people use social media such as Next Door, Facebook, Twitter thinking that it can replace these face to face physical interactions or even the communications which may be long but with good information. These social media resources cannot and will never replace the human touch. Social media does not allow you to look into someone?s eyes to see if they are indeed alright when they tell you they are fine, it does not cause you to use better communication, it allows you to hide, to be less empathetic and compassionate, it takes away humanity and humility. Neighborhood associations are important to have for many reasons, not just the relationships that can be built, but also 1) to address a particular concern, 2) to empower residents, 3) to build community. Even today in the internet age, the human touch is a necessity and cannot be replicated.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 11, 2015 at 9:40 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

NextDoor.com is a fabulous tool, head and shoulders above anything in its class, and has the potential to grow ? in fact is growing -- to be much more than just a bulletin board and request-for-services Internet stop.

The fact that you know who you are hearing from is huge, avoiding much of the gratuitous vitriol from anonymous postings elsewhere when things start to heat up, which is bound to happen when involved in civic affairs.

NextDoor also allows you to write directly to other individuals without even knowing their email address. I have done this in several recent ?campaigns? with good result.

NextDoor also has the significant capacity to restrict its multi-way neighborhood communications to just subgroups. Not everyone is a neighborhood-issue junkie, if you want to form and invite people to a group of more limited interest and number, you can, such as the CTRA Civic Discussions group created in NextDoor College Terrace.

But there are caveats as well.

The city missed the NextDoor boat completely with its decision to contract with RBlock for engaging with neighbors, but they were als smart enough to switch to a winner, and now use Next Door heavily via several of its internal departments. Regional governmental organizations have also joined in as additional uber-groups that can ?push? to all subscribers within one or more entire citywide NextDoor communities. You can turn these communication off, if you know how, and all may still be OK, as long as the information from on high remains informative and neutral.

NextDoor is free at the moment, but if its critical success continues to translate into VC funding (it took in a $110 million investment last week) there will be a payoff later. Advertising? Fees to various subscribers? The Big Buyout from a Internet superpower?

NextDoor is Silicon Valley ingenuity and capitalism at a high level, and there is something we certainly gain from it as neighborhood association advocates and active participants, but it will not be a substitute for face-to-face interaction under responsible, well-prepared, organizational leadership, no moreso than watching ?Selma? is a substitute for reading a thoroughly-researched, well-written history of the King years.

Welcome NextDoor, but folks, become and stay involved with you neighborhood association, up close and in person.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 11, 2015 at 10:27 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

NextDoor lacks critical features, by choice, needed for it to be useful for discussion of even mildly controversial topics.

First, last I checked, it doesn't provide for a moderator/manager to deal with persistent inappropriate use. This was a deliberate decision of the company, operating under the philosophy that everyone should be responsible for spending however much time it takes to filter their input stream. While this philosophy is accepted by certain demographics, other demographics have the attitude that if the "noise" is too much, they simply unsubscribe from the whole service.

Second, it fails to provide features that many people regard as necessary for them to feel "safe" enough to participate. Again, this was a decision of the company based upon the culture of the demographic of its leaders.

In those discussions with NextDoor several years ago, they were uncomprehending of the range of communications involved in community building/maintenance. They were a start-up and I didn't expect them to have it as part of their current system, but I was expecting some awareness and interest in such as future extensions (there wasn't). Tech companies are infamous for the attitude "You need to figure out how to tailor your problems to fit our solution" and "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail".

On the choice of rBlock vs NextDoor vs ...: A group of similar systems were being considered at the same time. Many of the neighborhood associations chose NextDoor as the best/least-bad of the bunch. They rejected rBlock because it provided no role for neighborhoods: There was the individual, the single physical block s/he lived on and then the City. The closest approximation to a "neighborhood" was a circle of specified radius centered on your house: If A lived near the edge of B's circle, most of the people inside each of A's and B's circles were outside the other's. Not good.

City Hall's adoption of rBlock was apparently driven by them seeing pushing information out to residents as the only priority. City Hall ignored the input from neighborhood leaders, and took forever to concede defeat (and switch to NextDoor).


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Mountain View,
on Mar 11, 2015 at 11:13 pm

NextDoor's registration process was incredibly creepy.

They requested name, street address, etc. and said they would mail a postcard with some sort of confirmation code to finalize registration. That was too much for me, so on a lark, I registered with my junkmail e-mail address (one reserved for spammy stuff), my real first name and a last name based on a nearby street. I submitted a large business's street address has my home address. Based on their requirements, I would have failed miserably.

A few days later, my junkmail inbox had a message saying that my registration was accepted. So all of a sudden, I find myself on Nextdoor using a login handle with my real first name, but bogus last name, and indicating my location as a few blocks away.

And what did I get out it? Mostly people hawking used stuff like "hey, my toddler has outgrown the baby stroller, please let me know if you want to buy it."

So as Doug mentioned, I found the service of noise, so I abandoned within a month.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by paul machado, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Mar 12, 2015 at 10:27 am

Neighborhoods are the fabric of a city, twenty four hours a day seven days a week. Without residents supporting each other you do not have a city but merely an office park, shopping mall or other commercial endeavor.

This blog touches on the very heart of a city.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 12, 2015 at 5:26 pm

Thanks again for another relevant blog, Doug. My first thought was ?you?ve given us a lot to chew on,? and was surprised to see that was the first comment posted. Obviously, you?ve touched on a topic a lot of us care about.

Last thing first: I joined Nextdoor.com in its very early days. The first thing that bothered me was when someone I barely knew sent me an email asking me to join up. When I went to the site, I discovered people were being paid $50 for every person they got to join. I found that very distasteful. I did sign up, added several recommendations for handymen, contractors, etc. and also started a political section. Only 3 people ever signed up for that.

As weeks went by, I got fed up with the free strollers, etc. and people asking if anyone knew a good plumber, when several were already listed.
Maybe it?s changed. Maybe your neighborhood is different. But I found it totally useless.

They will probably start advertising at some point. After 4 rounds of venture funding (Web Link), you can bet they?re going to need a revenue stream.

> ?Having a known group of people experienced in dealing with City Hall can help residents get their problems addressed by telling them who to contact and how to present the problem.?

Absolutely, Doug! Old-timers like you, Bob Moss, and others who have been following the city council for ages are the gurus who can mentor the younger crowd.

> Interpersonal distances: It?s not just personal space. NYC transplants talk faster, interrupt one another, and are much more direct than some people are used to. Sometimes they are falsely labeled ?rude? when they?re simply stating an opinion in their normal way.

This reminds me of Larry Klein (when he was on the council) saying he never read comments on PA Online because they were too ?vituperative.? The Palo Alto Way has always been "play nice," which translates to "Don't contradict me."

> Meaningful Notification: Funny you should mention this. I just found out (by accident) that the city council packets are now (as of Jan 1) finalized 11 DAYS prior to a council meeting. (Documents that come in after that date are copied and placed on the dais for council members the day of the meeting.)

I wonder how many people know that. It means that if you write a letter (email or snail) to the council a week before a meeting ? which seems like plenty of time ? council members won?t have a week to study it.

The 11 days was meant to give council time to read the often-long and complex staff reports. But it seems easy enough to add emails to the packet until the very day of the meeting.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 12, 2015 at 6:05 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Pat: "Meaningful notification: ...It means that if you write a letter (email or snail) to the council a week before a meeting ? which seems like plenty of time ? council members won?t have a week to study it. ..."

My understanding is that this is a misunderstanding. Email to the Council address (City.Council@CityofPaloAlto.org) gets forwarded to the Council members' email quickly. The hardcopy of those emails may be delayed for ... I don't know about non-email received by the City Clerk for Council.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 12, 2015 at 6:20 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Pat: "Interpersonal distances...'vituperative'..."

In this case Larry "I already know what is best" Klein was right. Town Square Forums were dominated by people who would spew venom unfounded in the facts -- the attitude was that they didn't have any obligation to get their fact right before launching accusations against people, but rather it was the obligation of the person attacked to set the record straight (fat chance).

For many public figures, this can be especially stressful because they want to respond but they know that that is only "feeding the trolls". Not reading a forum is a reasonable, and the recommended, way to avoid stressing out over being unable to respond. A common practice is to have a supporter read the forum and notify the public figure when there is something that warrants a response.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 12, 2015 at 6:31 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Pat "Interpersonal distances...rude..."

Yes, calls for "civility" can be used as a weapon to suppress opposing viewpoints.* However, I was talking about having someone with the standing who could help moderate the behavior of the participants. Having a productive discussion means having fair and honest exchanges, not suppressing disagreement.
BTW, I do know several adults who are so "conflict adverse" that they refuse to participate should someone else have stated a different perspective, no matter how calmly, reasonably... The only solution I have found for such timidness is to have them talk to someone who would then report that perspective (unattributed).

====
* This was the topic of two of my earlier blog postings
In Defense of Incivility and
Why not constructive engagement with City Hall?.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 12, 2015 at 7:55 pm

Doug,
Here's the updated wording on the city website:
Effective January 1, 2015, the Council packet is produced and published 11 days prior to the meeting, It is delivered to Council Members on Thursday evenings and contains the Agenda, Staff Reports, Minutes, Schedule of Meetings, tentative agenda, correspondence, and supporting material for each agenda item. The City Council Agenda, including the Schedule of Meetings on the last page are posted to the City's web pages after 5:30 p.m. on the Thursday. Council packet is available for public perusal in the Council Chambers by 8:00 a.m. the next day and at the City's Libraries on Friday. Web Link

I assume council members can look at emails any time and not wait for the packet. Members of the public won't see anything until the packet comes out and, since it comes out so early, they might not see everything until they go to a council meeting.


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Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 13, 2015 at 7:11 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

With the packets released two Thursdays (11 days) prior to a Monday evening council meeting, emails submitted to the city council or letters/documents delivered via hard copy to the clerk?s office by noon the following Thursday should appear in that afternoon?s packet. This means the public has four days to read public comments already submitted.

Is this not occurring?

Furthermore, a deadline should be set for that same Thursday evening for council member questions submitted to staff (related to staff reports released the previous week). Staff should turn them around by the end of the day Friday and post them to the designated section on the city?s web site. Then both the public and the council have the weekend to digest staff?s responses.


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Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 14, 2015 at 4:12 pm

Fred: Yes, it is occurring. But think of all the paper wasted with 25 packets of citizen input.

Email to council could automatically be added to the digital packet as they come in (time stamped) with a designated cutoff date. For members of the public who aren?t online, the library and city clerks office could print on demand.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 14, 2015 at 7:03 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

No problem for me with that idea, Pat.


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Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 14, 2015 at 7:19 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Moving on from the discussion of the impacts of social media on neighborhood associations, skipping past crucial skills of leadership, engagement, research, discussion moderation and mentoring that Doug and others point out, and looking at the phrase ?process for recognition? in Monday night?s staff report with regard to strengthening city engagement with neighborhoods, I want to add some important concepts (at least to me) based on personal experience with my own neighborhood association.

The key for any truly effective neighborhood association is not that it be formally ?recognized? by the city, but that it be intrinsically recognized, embraced, and supported by the residents of the neighborhood it is designed to serve.

Toward that goal, as a member of a neighborhood association board, there is an ethical bar that needs to be met together with competency and commitment.

I have lived in College Terrace for 24 years. For the first half, I was stranded into late evenings and weekends in cubicles deep in the Valley and later starting a business. I was fairly oblivious to our neighborhood association during that time.

That changed over a decade ago, when a major neighborhood-impacting land-use deal was announced, and I just could not ignore it. After evaluation, I began leafleting neighbors to alert them and to gauges support on a few key issues. I received quite a few positive responses in an effort that would continue to grow during the application process

However, by some I was perceived as a danger of upsetting a neighborhood association apple cart. Who was I anyway, and what did I know about this matter? And if I did not desist, I would imperil the association?s relationship with the city.

My goal here is not to rehash old stories, but rather to encourage civic-minded residents to think.

What happened in the wake of that project was a several-year effort pressing for what I and other residents felt were needed reforms in the association. Matters did improve; I eventually joined the board and served for four years. I now actively seek new blood for the board and its committee, and am a strong advocate for resident's issues and in this post, the importance of neighborhood associations ?done right.?

I realize also that during that period I failed to recognize much outstanding work in the association that preceded my specific concern, including laying the groundwork for a College Terrace Residential Parking Permit and neighborhood traffic calming. All is not black-and-white, and I certainly have achieved no perfection or infallibility during my years of service on the board.

But nine years ago and many months after that project was approved, together with other neighbors, I helped put together four ?key principles? that we submitted to each nominee for the CTRA Board. It was accompanied by a letter asking if s/he supported those principles and if there were one of more that he or she did not, to let us know why.

Below is the exact text of that March, 2006 one-pager containing those principles. As a neighborhood association leader or someone who aspires to be one, I ask you to think about them in the context of your own neighborhood association today and your vision of a responsible, effective neighborhood association board.

Key Principles for 2006 CTRA Board of Director Nominees

1. Representation
(a) Commitment to represent the views of the majority of residents of College Terrace and to take the initiative in determining the majority view.
(b) Commitment to foster and encourage open discussions with and among residents, to take in all points of view, and to not fear or shy away from ideas and views that differ from one?s own.

2. Communications
(a) To clearly communicate to the neighborhood varying points of view on key issues.
(b) To help ensure that minutes of board meetings and committees are developed approved and posted promptly and that residents are notified of the posting and location of those minutes in a timely manner

3. Conflict of Interest
(a) To reveal any potential conflict of interest as a prospective CTRA board member, including those with the city or other government agency, Stanford, or any individual or group that has a financial or political stake in an issue with regard to College Terrace.
(b) To recuse oneself from CTRA matters that relate to an area in which there is a conflict of interest.
- The standard for both 3a and 3b is the same standard as would be applied to the Palo Alto City Council.

4. Interaction With Third Parties
(a). Commitment to full, timely, accurate and unfiltered disclosure of the substance of any non-public meeting with City officials, Stanford University, Stanford Management Company, or any body or group having a financial of political stake in an issue pertaining to College Terrace.
(b) To refrain from engaging in any negotiations with the City, Stanford, or other groups beyond information gathering or clarifying the position of such other groups with the prior consent of the majority of the CTRA Board of Director given at an openly-noticed CTRA Board meeting.
(c ) To refrain from promoting or assisting in the promotion of, the interests of an outside party without adequate, equal representation of neighborhood points of view. Outside parties would include the City, other governmental agencies, Stanford, developers, or other groups with a financial or political stake in an issue with regard to College Terrace.


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Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 16, 2015 at 8:58 pm

Well-put, Fred. Those are words to live by.


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