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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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Disengaged "Engagement"

Uploaded: Mar 14, 2015
This proposal was written by a bureaucrat who opposes it. That was my reaction to a proposal for "Strengthening City Engagement with Neighborhoods" on the March 16 Council agenda, and attributed to four Council members. I had hoped that my previous blog entry on neighborhood associations would have provoked others to make this observation.

My first reaction was that the proposal lacked a meaningful statement of the problems to be addressed and that the statement of the goals was so abstract and generic as to be meaningless. There is one exception?"adding much more face-to-face contact"?but it is not supported by the recommended actions: While the proposed "annual town hall-style meetings" may mean that for the members of City Staff involved, the same cannot be said when viewed from the residents' perspective.(foot#1)

"So," I asked myself "who were the neighborhood leaders consulted in the formulation of this proposal?" I did a quick check with those I figured to have been leading choices and found that none of them had been?not only had they not been part of the formulation of the proposal, but they hadn't even be asked for feedback on the draft. It bodes ill when a proposal on engagement fails in the most trivial and obvious form of engagement.

Note: Before you say that I am reading too much into how this proposal is presented, recognize that it was generated by people highly experienced in these matters.

Recommendation 1 of the proposal involves two of the basic tactics of a bureaucracy intent on doing nothing. The first tactic is to have trivial actions so that they can report false achievements. In this case, it is adding a link on an existing web page on the City's website to one or more existing web pages that the City already knows of. (foot#2) The second time-honored tactic is to create a prerequisite that can be "an infinite time sink" which not only bogs down and exhausts the participants, but can serve as an excuse for not making meaningful progress on other parts of a proposal. One favorite is coming up with definitions, terminology, standards? where there are so many dissimilar situations that it is an exercise in futility.(foot#3) (foot#4) Based on my experience, this pseudo-attempt to come up with standards will drag out for several years before expiring. The stronger neighborhood associations will have walked away, recognizing that the cost of jumping through the hoops far exceeds the benefits. And for lesser neighborhood associations, the "standards" will likely be prohibitive.

Recommendation 2 addresses a real problem: Providing meeting spaces for neighborhood activities that are currently prohibitively expensive and complex to arrange. But the recommendation is not about actually doing this. It isn't even about producing procedures for doing this. It is to "explore guidelines". And then to further impede anything useful happening, this is to be restricted to "recognized" neighborhood associations, likely making this moot.

Recommendation 3 reveals the bureaucratic mindset: "Provide small, one-time start-up grants for neighborhood associations to be used to attend the United Neighborhoods of Santa Clara County?s Annual Conference and toward neighborhood association initiation activities." When I was in the leadership of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), we decided against participating in United Neighborhoods of Santa Clara County because the benefits to us were minimal, and certainly not worth the costs. However, an appetite for more meetings is the hallmark of a true bureaucrat, and conventions are a treat.

Recommendation 4 could be read as "Make the neighborhood associations more effective in supporting City Hall." For several years, "Civic engagement (for the common good)" was a Council priority, with negligible effect. This was highly contentious because there were two starkly different interpretations of what this phrase meant. One interpretation involved greater involvement by residents in decision-making, and was led by Palo Alto Neighborhoods, and were the people that are now commonly referred to as "Residentialists". The opposing interpretation was this was to have ordinary residents volunteer to help implement decisions (grunt work) already reached by the political elite, and?surprise, surprise?was pushed by "The Establishment".

Recommendation 5?"Each neighborhood association will be encouraged to identify a designated "Communications Officer" as information liaison with the City"?represents a multitude of sins. First, it is one of those trivially accomplished pseudo-accomplishments that I mentioned above. Second, it ignores how many of the neighborhood associations actually operate, imposing a bureaucratic notion of how a proper organization should function. Third, it seems to extend the problem of Recommendation 4: Assuming that communication is from City Hall down to the residents.

Recommendation 6 about "town hall-style meetings" I have already addressed.

Recommendation 7?an Ombudsperson?seems nice until you think about the history and pattern of Ombudspersons. The ones that take the position seriously often quit in frustration at their impotence, not uncommonly within a year or two. Others are Public Relations people who see their job not as solving problems, but deflecting them. Furthermore, this represents a very bureaucratic attitude that input from residents needs to go through proper channels, and that the proper person to deal with the public is someone who specialized in PR, not someone who is responsible for dealing with problems.

Back in the day when I was on the Barron Park Association (BPA) Board and was managing the email lists and co-webmaster, I had back-channels to some staff in Public Works. There were documents, especially maps, that they couldn't get posted to the City's website, either in a timely manner or at all, so they would email them to me and I would post them on the BPA website and email out an announcement of their availability. And during major construction projects, such as replacing water and sewer lines, they would give me daily updates on the schedule of which streets would be obstructed so that I could pass it on. This benefited both residents and the City: Residents so they could avoid those area, and the City because the contractors had to deal with less traffic disrupting their work. Although these staff members recommended this to their co-workers, many refused to avail themselves of the resource.

Summary: Those are the recommendations for this major priority for the year. So my question is: Is there any there there? (paraphrasing Gertrude Stein about Oakland)

---- Footnotes ----
1. Recommendation 6 (of 7) is to "Hold annual town hall-style meetings?focused on different regions of Palo Alto." Reportedly, the current thinking is to have four such meetings a year. That number is not unreasonable given the amount of effort that would be needed to have effective meetings. However, there are more than four major regions in Palo Alto, so this would mean that each region would not have an annual meeting.
To give a sense of "regions": There are roughly 35-40 neighborhoods in Palo Alto?some tiny, some very large?and a degree of clumping is eminently practical, but not to the extent of having only four regions.

2. Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN)?the umbrella group of neighborhood associations?maintains this information on its site, and has for more than a decade. On the other hand, we have seen that reusing already compiled information is not trivial for City Hall: In an earlier attempt to list the neighborhood association in a graphic, there were repetitions, omissions and spelling errors.

3. In the tech industry there is an ironic saying "Everyone understand the importance of standards. Why else would they have so many of their very own."

4. The proposal talks of establishing "basic standards and requirements for governance" to have a "recognized neighborhood association". This is an example of widely varying circumstances. For example, College Terrace Residents Association has an election by the membership at an annual meeting. Barron Park Association (BPA) has elections of the Board by the Board. At first glance, this would seem to be bad governance. To the contrary. First, Barron Park has over 1300 households (the borders are fuzzy), and the annual meetings are attended by 50-100 residents, so the participation rate in an election would be miniscule. Second, and more importantly, the Board does not regard itself as a governing body, but as a coordinating committee: Major activities need to have at least one Board member among its leadership, whether an existing Board member takes on that responsibility, or the leader of the activity joins the Board. Since the primary duty of the president and other executive officers is to lead the coordinating committee, it is appropriate that they be elected by that committee. There was one instance many years ago when it was beneficial that the Board was not elected: One Board member was pushing to have the Board say that the BPA?not even just the Board?endorsed a political cause she supported. When told that such an action would require a poll of the membership, she said "It's a shame that we aren't elected because then we could do what we want." We saw that attitude on City Council after the 2013 Measure D election (Maybell upzoning) where multiple Council members (Berman, Klein, Kniss) used a similar argument to justify disregarding the implications of those results.

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Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 14, 2015 at 7:23 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Doug's moving a lot faster than I am.

FYI. I have just added a post to his earlier blog on why neighborhood associations are still important.

The first paragraph is below with the link to that blog and the full posting at Web Link

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. ....

Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 15, 2015 at 12:23 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Doug writes:
?This proposal was written by a bureaucrat who opposes it.?

But isn?t a city council colleagues? memo in fact written by city council members who are bringing an item of shared import to the full council?

I agree that the memo is a mixed bag, but at least it is a place to start and work toward determining the best steps to achieve its stated goal of the city strengthening its engagement with neighborhoods.

On the memo?s plus side, any assistance the city can provide in facilitating access to affordable venues for meeting space for neighborhood groups would be helpful. Of course, we have to be careful that it does not lead to more lures as part of imbalanced developer PCs as occurred in the Alma Plaza process and was reprised but did not not stick for College Terrace Centre. In both instances, a ?community room? within the office space was offered as part of the public benefit package.

On the other hand, I am concerned if the combination of a designated neighborhood association ?Communications Officer? combined with a ?City Ombudsperson? would serve as a way of restricting who in the neighborhood communicates with the city and who in the city that person can interact with. While the city has added new levels of communications personnel in various departments, staff reports on land-use issues no longer conclude with the name and signature of the planner who created it. Why is that?

What is essential is for residents to be able to speak directly to the planner or other city employee in charge of an item to get clarification on reports and other material he or she oversees and produces so that the residents can be better informed and at the earliest possible time. The two ends of communication between neighborhood and city may differ for each project or item.

We need to have flat, open, direct lines of communication between residents and key personnel in the city. The process is as simple as a resident calling or emailing the knowledge and responsible person in the city who is in charge of the matter at hand and that person responding appropriately. If, for any reason, this form of direct communication is deemed unworkable or undesirable by the city, we all need to stop in our tracks and understand why.

Of course, the more prepared, the person on the neighborhood side (both in the specifics of the item and ability to effectively interact with city personnel), the better. Toward this end, new and helpful tools and procedures have been incorporated by the city. They include the Open Data Portal and Development Services Updates noted in the colleagues? memo and the extended window to study council packets discussed in responses to Doug's earlier blog on the importance of neighborhood associations.

I recommend that as part of its package to strengthen neighborhood engagement, the city hold one or more informational meetings for residents to explain and review the use of these and other new informational tools and resources as well receive input on their implementation.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Mar 16, 2015 at 10:06 am

"This proposal was written by a bureaucrat who opposes it."

I can see his/her point. Staff knows that civic engagement is a waste of time because it will ignore any outcome of such meetings because it doesn't want citizen interference with its sacred rites. It's bad enough having to humor those civilians on the council.

Sabotaging the process is therefore the best option overall; it saves everybody's time and no raise false hopes are raised.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 16, 2015 at 2:07 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Fred Balin's "But isn?t a city council colleagues? memo in fact written by city council members who are bringing an item of shared import to the full council?"
RE: my "...attributed to four Council members."

Based on writing style, ask yourself "Which Council member was the primary author of this proposal?" When I asked this of myself, the answer was "None of them." Similarly for the corresponding version of the question about the content of the proposal.

Most trivially, ask yourself which Council member would think that adding a link from a City webpage to a webpage listing the neighborhood associations was something that not only required a decision by Council, but needed referral to a subcommittee of Council (Policy and Services) for hearings before being brought to Council for a decision? Again, "None of them."

Instead, a Council member would write about having Staff produce a list of recommended actions to make the neighborhood associations more visible/accessible to residents and others. They would then review the adequacy of that list in their oversight role.

While there are obvious inferences, that speculation is but diverting entertainment.

Posted by another way, a resident of Los Altos,
on Mar 16, 2015 at 8:48 pm

This is bizarre and tragic and absolutely typical. I used to work for IBM, so bureaucraspeak is all too familiar.

Let me offer an example of engagement from your neighbor, Los Altos.
One of the council members thought it would be good to get feedback from residents on several new projects that were built downtown ? and raised a lot of criticism.

She held a walking tour last September in which she led a group of residents (whoever wanted to show up was welcome) and took them around to some of the buildings. Stopping in front of each, she explained the zoning and design criteria.

She then asked the rest of the council to approve a citizens committee to review new buildings in the context of current zoning regulations and other guidelines and ? with input from residents -- potentially recommend changes.

A second walking tour was conducted on Sunday. A notice was posted on the city website and in the local paper.

Same city councilwoman leading the tour. Citizens committee members were there PLUS another councilwoman, the city manager, the assistant city manager, manager of planning services and the city manager?s assistant.

All were chatting with residents along the route, answering questions, gathering input.

It IS possible to get things done without a lot of fuss if the right people have the right attitude.

Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 17, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Last night's postponement of council action on the item due to the length of the earlier two items on the agenda, provides more time for public consideration of Doug's two blogs on the topic of neighborhood associations and the city's staff report prior to council decision on next steps. There will most likely also be letters from residents in the packet of correspondence to be released later this week.

Posted by City Observer, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Mar 17, 2015 at 10:53 pm

Not sure how this ties in with a general observation that since the defeat of the Maybell project, the City Manager has spent a great deal of money and effort, and lots of PR, to create a new constituency that would support him, and influence the council, outside of neighborhood organizations. Many examples:

-His embrace of PA Forward, including support for more than a few appointments of its leaders to commissions and committees,
-his series of daytime coffees (seven coffees, as I recall *each one* attended by city staff) with downtown workers, to acquaint them with the city - this didn't get much publicity
-the many "I Love Palo Alto" events and websites (to show we're not like those neighborhood types)
-disparaging experienced council watchers calling them "the usual suspects" and saying he wants to hear from younger people
-this theme is often reflected in the remarks of Berman and Wolbach.

I think the CM'srg23w influence may be reflected in this Colleagues memo (especially via Wolbach and Burt). The memo has some positive elements, but there is an underlying government control, top-down element that should not be glossed over.

Posted by another way, a resident of Los Altos,
on Mar 18, 2015 at 9:34 am

How much influence does the city manager have on commission appointments?

I don't understand how developers and those with vested interest in growth get on PTC commissions in PA and other cities. Seems like a huge conflict of interest.

Consider these comments from PA's PTC commissioner Michael Alcheck:
Web Link
Alcheck favored an approach that allows developers to effectively propose anything they want in exchange for zoning exceptions, with the understanding that the council can always reject the package it receives if it doesn't like it. The city, he said, should welcome "out-of-the-box thinking" from developers.

Alcheck, in a highly unusual move, lobbied planning staff to change its stance toward the 50-foot height limit, which he has criticized in the past.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Mar 18, 2015 at 10:23 am

The problem with PA neighborhood associations is that they have no legal standing in terms of representing their neighborhood.

The associations are populated by individuals who have the interest, time and/or drive to be involved. But the associations and their boards are not elected by the full population of the area...only by those who are involved. In the past I attended Crescent Park meetings...except for programs on flood zones, the meetings are sparsely attended. The bottom line is that the association doesn't have a leg to stand on when it come to representing any opinion of the residents in the area.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 18, 2015 at 4:24 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Crescent Park Dad

One of the points I attempted to make--in the blog itself and the referenced earlier writings--was that a neighborhood association doesn't need to represent the neighborhood, but can take on the role of helping neighborhood's residents more effectively represent themselves, that it, help the range of perspectives within the neighborhood get represented.

As to "legal standing", take the PA Chamber of Commerce as an example of a similar group. It has no legal standing to speak for developers and other real estate interests, yet it does. And its membership is miniscule compared to the size of the business community. And various segments of the local business community view the PACoC as operating against their segment's interests.

Posted by Counterclockwise, a resident of University South,
on Mar 21, 2015 at 7:37 pm

"But the associations and their boards are not elected by the full population of the area...only by those who are involved."

That is precisely how every governing body is elected -- by those who choose to participate in the election.

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