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By Douglas Moran

Why not "constructive engagement" with City Hall?

Uploaded: Oct 23, 2014

It has been suggested to me by community members that I make these blog posts more positive, less critical. And that I should engage in "constructive engagement" (their term) with City Hall. A major issue in this campaign is why I and so many others have come to view constructive engagement as ineffective, a waste of time.

My inaugural blog posting was Librarians Against Books: Subverting the will of the electorate (2013 October 7) discussed a failed 21 month effort at constructive engagement (Nov 2010 - July 2012). Most of this time (almost 16 months) was City Hall stonewalling public records requests. The rest was spent unsuccessfully trying to get non-contradictory explanations of Staff's decisions, (foot#1) and ended with ad hominem attacks on the residents asking questions. The group, of which I was a peripheral member, took the problem to City Council members. Although Council members voiced sympathetic reactions, they were unwilling to do anything to make constructive engagement actually work. Several advised the group that for anything to change, there would have to be a significant public outcry. Faced with a "Damned if you do; damned if you don't" situation, the group's principals decided against rabble-rousing and accepted defeat.

A related, and routine, case of "Damned if you do; damned if you don't" is that if you try to engage City Hall with only a small group of people who have considerable expertise on the issue?thereby allowing for interactive, productive meetings?you get dismissed as "the usual suspects" (or worse). If you bring in a larger group, some of those people will inevitably get some of the facts somewhat wrong, and City Hall will dismiss your group as not understanding the issue.

Which brings us to public outreach meetings. My experience, and that of many others, is that Staff reports routinely fail to represent much of what occurred at those meetings. This is widely known at City Hall, and the City Manager has even acknowledged that Staff reports are intended to support Staff's recommendations. (foot#2) Yet if you go to a Commission or Council meeting and present information from an earlier meeting that was omitted from the Staff report, don't be surprised to be chastised for failing to have participated in those earlier meetings. And definitely don't expect to be afforded any opportunity to respond to such false criticism. I know a number of normally polite and reserved residents who have been so furious at that arrogance that they said they had to restrain themselves from "flipping off" the dais (one even mentioned thinking about mooning them). A more restrained approach would be to stand up and turn your back on the dais as a sign of disapproval (from "shunning").

So what about constructive engagement over constructive engagement? Tried it and failed. When the current City Manager Jim Keene arrived, I introduced myself to him at an event and told him that there was a major problem with public input and that I would like to have a meeting with him about it, either individually or as part of a group. I gave him enough of a sketch of my background to let him know of my extensive experience in this area. He blew me off, but I wrote that off to the crunch of getting up to speed. However, during his first year, I made multiple additional attempts in this regard, and each time got blown off?he didn't even bother to feign an interest in dealing with the topic. Note that this is not about me being slighted, but rather what was already a very serious problem being slighted. (foot#3)

Constructive engagement also fails when there is no disagreement. For example, in preparation for a public outreach meeting on turning the street I live on (Matadero) into a Bicycle Boulevard, I and another neighborhood leader arranged with Staff to walk the street to help them prepare for the public meeting. I had been working the issue for 13 years and provide written notes to Staff. Total waste of time. Staff gave a stock presentation, almost all of which was irrelevant to the situation at hand. The public input portion of the meeting was dominated by residents attempting to get Staff to understand what they had already been told. Most of this did not make it into the Staff recommendation. The situation was repeated for a Bike Boulevard on the other side of my neighborhood (Maybell), but this time the information that Staff decided to ignore was an extensive, and expensive, official study about what was needed and what could be done. When asked by residents why that study was being ignored, the only explanation they got was "We want to start fresh."

Not all of Staff resists constructive engagement?some welcome it and a few have actively sought it. But they are a decided minority. Details in (foot#4)

Constructive engagement may not be just a waste of time, but risks being harmful. I and other activists have been warned by sympathetic members of Staff that there is a significant segment of Staff that regards having to consider input from residents as "demeaning their professionalism", and that there are some that are so prideful that they are highly resistant to fixing an error identified by a resident. From what is visible to the outsider, City Hall management seems very tolerant of this attitude. However, one of the very positive actions City Manager Keene took when he arrived was to come down very hard on Staff members using derisive terms for residents (individuals and generically), usage that had become widespread under his predecessor.

City Hall promotes the illusion of constructive engagement by working with favored advocacy groups, but routinely excluding residents. Example: Bol Park, in my neighborhood, is behind the VA Hospital. I have encountered vets who are practicing using smart phones and tablets to enhance their vision. And when there are problems with bus service to the VA, I have encountered vets in wheelchairs using the bike path to get El Camino and Caltrain. There is a substantial short-cut from the VA to the bike path and the park, but it involves a short, steep, dirt path crossing a ditch. A ramp would have made this back entrance to the VA much more accessible. There seemed to be a real need and it seemed to be do-able. With the support of my neighborhood association, I worked the various parties involved and then at a high level reception, I herded the relevant officials together to get basic agreement. There was a meeting held, but I wasn't notified, either of the meeting nor the results. Although I eventually learned of fragments of that meeting, I still don't understand why the project didn't go forward. And who did City Hall have at the meeting for citizen participation? The members of the PA Bicycle Advisory Committee (PABAC), which functions largely as an advocacy group for elite cyclists. "Huh?" you say? The back entrance to the VA was also used by bike commuters, so obviously their priorities took precedence.

I have several other similar accounts. If you talk to neighborhood and other residential activists around town, you will hear more stories in the same vein. In their talking about City Hall's actions, you will hear words like "abandoned", "betrayed", "subverted", and "sabotaged". It's not that City Hall was being malicious; it's just that they were "careless people" (from The Great Gatsby(foot#5)).

I can hear people saying that I shouldn't be so hard on City Hall, that "Everyone makes mistakes." A mistake is something that you recognize as wrong, that you try to remedy, and that you try to avoid in the future. When there is no real attempt at that, and the supposed "mistake" occurs over and over and over, it is mistaken to call it a "mistake"?it is behavior/policy.

Before anyone says that people at City Hall deserve respect by the nature of their positions, recognize that I come from a culture where respect is something to be earned and to be voluntarily given, it is not something to be demanded and extracted, or automatically due.

In this Council campaign, several of the candidates are emphasizing the need to change the culture at City Hall (disclosure: I am working on the campaign of one of them). For me, this is the fundamental issue of this campaign. I see the controversies powering this campaign as a consequence of not having a political process that is open, fair and honest. Without substantial reform, Palo Alto seems condemned to a running, increasingly destructive battle.

---- Footnotes ----
1. Attempting to get non-contradictory explanations/justifications is a common problem for residents. For example, take the 7.7 acres next to Foothill Park that was one of the subjects of the scathing Civil Grand Jury report. There were two explanations for the price of $23K/acre: (1) It was the appropriate price and they had it confirmed by an independent consultant, and (2) Staff knew it was much too low, and intended to have the purchaser (Arrillaga) perform construction on athletic fields (of unspecified value). For example, Staff allows developers to use, to their advantage, contradictory models of cars coming and going in determining traffic impacts and parking requirements.
2. Staff reports as advocacy: In "Residents, developers clash over city's vision:..." (Palo Alto Weekly 2013-July-19) City Manager James Keene is reported to have acknowledged this: "The findings in the staff reports tend to support the particular staff recommendation rather than represent all views, he said." (also cited the accompanying editorial "In city that loves to plan, Palo Alto's creates cynicism").
3. My experience relative to constructive engagement: I was vice president (7 years) and president (6 years) of one of the largest and most active neighborhood associations (Barron Park). I was co-chair of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN). I served on multiple multi-year citizens advisory panels for the City, include the Caltrans/El Camino Redesign Study, Mayor's ad hoc Committee on Retail, Mayor's ad hoc Committee on Emergency Preparedness (aka Red Ribbon Task Force). I had been an active participant in the workshops and hearings leading up to the 1998 Comprehensive Plan, including working closely with one of the co-chairs of that process (he was also the president of Barron Park Association and was mentoring me on the range of issues). I was an active participant in a variety of other issues before the City, both large and small: Creeks/flood control, parks, bicycle safety, individual development projects (large and small) ?
When a high-level manager arrives at a new job, he directs his staff to prepare a list of people he needs to meet and talk to in order to get up to speed. That people like me weren't included says much about the priorities of City Hall.
4. In addition to helping prep for public meetings, I often served "interpreter" at meetings: I could "translate" terminology and other references and fill in details that one side?Staff or residents?mistakenly assumed the other knew. I also often served as an informal moderator, injecting myself to get things back on track. Through the neighborhood association, and its email lists, I help Staff disseminate and collect information that they couldn't do otherwise, for example posting information that could not be put on the City's website in a timely manner, and doing informal surveys for which the City didn't have a budget or approval process.
5. From The Great Gatsby: "It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy?they smashed up things and then retreated?and let others clean up the mess they made."

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.