By Douglas Moran
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 .
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