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Unrepresentative Sample of the Community?

Uploaded: May 15, 2015
"Who are these people? I've never heard of them!" is a comment I often hear about various members of the citizen advisory panels, oversight committees, ? appointed by City Hall and the School District. The other basic comment is "Same old group of insiders who talk only among themselves." Having served on some of those committees, I couldn't agree more.

At Monday's meeting, Council is scheduled to vote on "Composition and Purpose of an Advisory Committee for the Comprehensive Plan Update" (Staff Report; item 14 on the Agenda). This Committee could be very influential on the direction of the City, or totally irrelevant, depending on who gets appointed. That appointment will be by the City Manager following guidelines approved by Council.
Detail: The Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) should have been seen as a major forum for discussions on the CompPlan Update, but previous City Councils created a highly partisan PTC with a majority that is openly hostile to major segments of the community. Remember that the behavior of a previous PTC stoked the bitter debate over the Maybell up-zoning (which became 2013 Measure D referendum).

The proposed selection process is to have people from a broad range of categories (see the proposed application on PDF pages 8-9 of the Staff Report). A basic problem is that people can claim membership in a category without being representative of that category. For example, membership is some of these organizations is defined in terms of who is on their mailing list, and anyone can join simply by going to their Web page. Consequently, categories could be checked-off as being represented by appointing people who have never received an email from that group and might not bother to read any in the future, much less participate in their discussions.

At the other end of the spectrum are the leaders of various groups with an I-know-best attitude: They don't see the need to communicate to their group about what is happening in the committee, much less solicit feedback from members of the group on the issues being considered. An example of such a situation occurred last summer with the citizens advisory panel for the Housing Element Update for the Comprehensive Plan. A major and far-reaching change had been proposed by two members who had been appointed because of their positions in important housing advocacy groups: the Vice President of the Board of the Community Working Group and the President of the Board of Directors of Palo Alto Housing Corporation. In writing a blog on that proposal (How Bad Policy Happens), I checked with those groups whether that proposal represented an official position. The people in the leadership that I talked to were unaware of the proposal (but said they had faith that it would represent their group's policies).

Before dealing with someone on these committees, I try to do some quick research on their backgrounds and interests. Too often the only evidence I find that these people even live in Palo Alto is in the section of the Palo Alto Weekly listing building permits. A search of Palo Alto Online reveals nothing under Letters to the Editor, no Guest Opinion, and no mention of their name in a news article. They are similarly absent in search on the websites of City Hall or the School District. Ditto for general searches using Google.
Note: I don't expect online search to turn up significant portions of these activities, for example, it may be present only in private sections of websites. However, not being mentioned in the public portion of websites suggests an absence of higher-level participation.

The application includes a question (top of second page) "Please describe your involvement/experience in community activities, volunteer work, civic organizations, and how you have connected with the community."
My problem with this question is that it combines three distinct aspects:
1. Commitment (for example, as demonstrated by volunteering).
2. Knowledge of the relevant issues.
3. Attitudes and experience with outreach.
This allows applicants to focus on one and ignore others, obscuring whether this is inadvertent or indicative (that they lack qualifications in the omitted aspects). One often encounters people who believe that they are entitled to be appointed to committees such as this based on having contributed time and effort to a variety of low-level civic activities. For example, in a discussion where such an appointee was queried about this qualifications, he focused entirely, and extensively, on this, going all the way to "donating blood" (an exceptional example to make the point memorable).
Recommendation: I would like to see the application revised to make outreach experience a separate category, and to make performing outreach an explicit part of the stated duties and expectations of appointees. This needs to be a committee that represents more than just themselves.

It would be nice to expect applicants for major city-wide committees to have a publication record on the issue, but I recognize that isn't going to happen soon, if ever. As a neighborhood leader, member of these committees, and now as a blogger, I have tried hard to get people knowledgeable about the various issues to publish (and offered to help them do so). They won't, giving a variety of reasons, some of which are quite understandable.

Expecting such of applicants in future versions of such committees would have multiple benefits:
? Writing about an issue encourages you to think much more carefully about it, and exposes your ability to consider the complexities.
? When you have written about an issue, you hear from people you wouldn't have otherwise about their thoughts, values and perspectives.
? It exposes people who are toxic to civil discourse, for example, those unable or unwilling to consider other perspectives and those quick to demonize those who disagree.

Question to readers (for the comments):
What else should be asked of applicants for such committees? These items need not be required to be appointed, but would be valuable to have in the mix.
You can email your views on this issue to City Council at City.Council@CityofPaloAlto.org .

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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Posted by Been There Too, a resident of Professorville,
on May 15, 2015 at 12:51 pm

"This Committee could be very influential on the direction of the City, or totally irrelevant, depending on who gets appointed."

Depending much more on how staff (mis)represents their product to the city council, or ignores it entirely and substitutes its own version of its desired outcome as it did in the SOFA process. The group must be vigilant, non-naive, and prepared to fight for its vision.

Posted by csf, a resident of Midtown,
on May 15, 2015 at 1:43 pm

I'd like staff to ensure that people who serve on a task force have some knowledge of the topic and not not simply representing a group. I, too, was on the Housing Element task force and while most had a thorough grasp of the issues, a few were totally clueless.

Posted by Johnny, a resident of Midtown,
on May 16, 2015 at 9:10 am

[[Blogger: off-topic, "bumper sticker"]]

Posted by History Buff, a resident of another community,
on May 17, 2015 at 3:29 pm

Why does the city manager get to appoint people (regardless of council guidelines)? He wasn?t elected. He doesn?t represent residents. He?s got his own agenda: hire more staff and increase his self-importance.

I agree with Doug?s assessment of the PTC: ?highly partisan with a majority that is openly hostile to major segments of the community.?

Ditto the Art Commission, which chose a bike bridge design that would be dangerous for birds (fortunately vetoed by the city council). And how many people like the $270,000 Beasley ?destination piece? at Mitchell Park library?

Part of the problem is apathy. Few residents volunteer, so we get the usual suspects cycling through.

Posted by Rainer, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on May 17, 2015 at 4:47 pm

Rainer is a registered user.

The unrepresentative sample is the "small but vocal minority" which does not agree with the traditional power brokers and their hangers-on, like the PTC stocked by the lame-duck old CC in November.
Or, is the PTC the unrepresentative sample? More likely!

How to fix it: see Diane Diamond on many occasions, using the State Guidelines Web Link

Posted by Bob Moss, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 17, 2015 at 4:55 pm

Normally when an advisory committee is created even if the city manager suggests members it is the city council that formally approves them. Usually the council does rubber stamp the manager's candidates, but not always, and it gives both councilmembers and the community an opportunity to comment on or challenge proposed members.
As for the Planning Commission, the two most recent members were appointed with the votes of outgoing councilmembers who had either lost re-election or who didn't run again fearing they would lose. They are very development-minded and uninformed - like the new member who said new housing can go on unused school sites. Of course there are no such sites. Even Cubberly that isn't currently a school is very heavily used by non-profits.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 17, 2015 at 10:50 pm

[[Blogger: Disrespectful behavior: "misunderstands" earlier comment in order to ridicule it.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 18, 2015 at 12:13 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On citizen advisory committees:
There are many levels, and are appointed at the corresponding level of City Hall. I have been on at least one that was appointed at the level of the Director of Planning.

At the lowest level are representatives of the stakeholder groups who can be regarded as providing Staff with a dry run of what they are going to present in public outreach, such as workshops. In these cases, there are enough levels of public outreach and hearing to fix any deficiencies in the advisory group.

In other cases, what goes on in the advisory committee can have a significant impact on shaping the policy to be presented, and thereby creates momentum that can be hard to counteract. Consequently, the composition of these committees needs more attention.

Posted by Observer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 20, 2015 at 12:21 am

At the Council meeting this week May 18th there was a discussion about the Advisory group for the Comprehensive Plan.
Scharff objected to the requirement that they be residents of Palo Alto. Others said there was lots of talent and knowledge in Palo Alto, no need to go elsewhere to develop OUR Comp Plan.
Scharff was joined by Berman and Wolbach. So now two members of the committee can be residents of another city.
So much for the Residentialist cloud Scharff put up before last November's election. He has returned to his true pro-development, real-estate attorney self.
Sounds like he has a well known developer or two, in mind.

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