Seeking to better understand what Palo Alto's neighborhoods need, four members of the City Council hope to appoint a staff member to work with liaisons from each of the city's neighborhoods.
"It's important to realize that Palo Alto is not homogenous," said Councilman Cory Wolbach, who has proposed the idea in a colleagues memo along with Mayor Karen Holman, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and Councilman Pat Burt. "I thought it would be useful for staff and council members to talk about issues that are unique to neighborhoods. We need to make sure that neighborhoods are strong and recognized and prioritized by the city."
The memo, which is scheduled to come before the full council on March 16, also proposes that city staff and council members hold neighborhood town-hall meetings, the co-authors said this week.
Schmid noted that the city already runs some neighborhood programs, such as offering neighborhood grants and emergency-preparedness training. The city also introduced rBlock.com, an information-sharing site, in 2011. And many neighborhoods use the social-networking website Nextdoor to communicate, he added.
"This is an attempt to bring those things together so there is a flow of information. I see it as building on what's there," Schmid said.
The city would sponsor four town hall events annually, he said.
"It would help alert the neighborhoods and alert the city to the issues so that there would be a responsiveness to the unique issues in the neighborhoods," he said.
Some neighborhood leaders said they approve of the idea.
"Whatever the city can do to more fully and regularly engage with the neighborhoods will be to the good," said Brent Barker, president of the College Terrace Residents Association.
Town hall meetings can be a way for residents to have questions answered, he said. The association already brings in guest speakers from the city to its annual meetings.
"Mayor Holman will be speaking and fielding questions at the CTRA annual meeting in March, the closest thing we have to a town hall meeting," he added.
Burt said the program would be "a real effort to more deliberately engage with the neighborhoods" and would empower residents.
"There are neighborhoods in the city that don't have an active association. We want to help facilitate that and to support creating neighborhood groups where they don't exist. We want to have a more routine exchange where people's voices are readily heard and not for people to have to come to an open mic at council meetings to voice their concerns," he said.
Sally-Ann Rudd, a Downtown North neighborhood leader, lives in a neighborhood without an active association.
"We used to have a neighborhood association, but since the advent of using Nextdoor, we've been using that platform to discuss neighborhood issues with great success. However, closing the loop would be to have face-to-face with city staff. I think it would be helpful. I'm not at all sure what issues would really come to the fore, but it would be interesting. We had 'Cash' Alaee (from the city manager's office) helping us two years ago when we did the food trucks in the park. It was very handy to have a City Hall insider help with the bureaucracy for that effort," she said.
Sheri Furman, Midtown Residents Association chair, said the program is in line with discussions she has had with council members over the years.
"If the council truly wants more people to participate in civic affairs, such a program would provide an excellent method for them to listen to and speak with residents who don't have the time or ability to attend city meetings," she said.
The program would give the council a better understanding of what non-activist residents care about, she added.
"It would also show council members that it's not only the so-called 'usual suspects' who have issues with some of the city's direction and decisions. And it would allow the council to better explain what they can and can't do and why," she said.
Ken Allen, Adobe Meadow Neighborhood Association president, likened the liaison program to having mediators. But the program will only be as good as its outcomes, he added.
"It can be useful if it is done right," he said.
Holman said the city must understand the diverse problems within its borders.
"Different neighborhoods have different issues. We have global issues such as traffic in town and parking," she said. "This is a way of establishing a line of communication and a better relationship or (defining) a pattern or an issue in a neighborhood."
If the council accepts the memo, the proposal would move on to the Policy and Services Committee for consideration. It would then return to the full council for a vote, she said.