News

Palo Alto leaders propose neighborhood-liaison program

Council members say communication with residents could improve

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.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Great!
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Feb 27, 2015 at 10:21 pm

I think this is a fantastic idea and long overdue. My request is that the City Council not just assign current neighborhood association heads as the liaisons. In some neighborhoods the neighborhood association is very week and the neighborhood association heads are barely more than "self-proclaimed leaders" and certainly do not represent the views of all those in the City-designated "neighborhood" zone. In other neighborhoods, there is deep division and large parts of the neighborhood do not participate in the NA because of long-standing cliques. The city-designated "neighborhoods" are large and complex.

How about asking for volunteers and see how many you get? If way too many people step up, then we can figure out how to determine who are the right liaisons.

There should also be a clear set of standard operating procedures for these liaisons. Each liaison should not be left to their own opinion on how to collaborate within their neighborhood. I, for one, would volunteer to help shape how this liaison role could operate. If you ask for volunteers, I will step up.


Like this comment
Posted by Question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 28, 2015 at 8:45 am

I signed up for Nextdoor but have found it kind of bewildering. Does anyone know if there is a setting so that the emails I get are listed as from the person sending them and there is something in the subject line like for yahoogroups or googlegroups that states it's Nextdoor before the subject heading, to make it easier to both filter and instantly see who is writing? Having emails coming from Nextdoor makes it feel very impersonal, and I don't want to spend the time going online.


1 person likes this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 28, 2015 at 7:52 pm

This will not work - there's no way that a particular *active* and available individual can fairly represent an entire neighborhood.

For example, I didn't care if the Edgewood Center had torn down the one building that the Eichler-ites were so upset about. In fact, most people just wanted the project to be finished as soon as possible. But if those Eichler-ites were somehow selected --- no way would they represent the greater majority of opinion or at least give it a fair representation.

This would be too easy of avenue for outspoken or extremely opinionated people to get into the CC's ear.


Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 28, 2015 at 8:16 pm

I agree with Crescent Park Dad. For example, when I moved to this neighborhood, nobody told me there was an (unofficial) neighborhood association run by this woman, but years later a neighbor sort of told me about it. I have read a few things in the paper about this group, but they have not contacted me nor have I been surveyed by ANYONE. Let's avoid select individuals asserting that they represent entire regions or neighborhoods in this city.


2 people like this
Posted by Backwards?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 1, 2015 at 12:08 am

i thought they meant to assign a City staff person as a liaison to each neighborhood association. I don't think the idea is to designate a person from each neighborhood to City Hall.


6 people like this
Posted by Counterclockwise
a resident of University South
on Mar 1, 2015 at 7:59 pm

Don't sweat it. Staff will sabotage it.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 12, 2015 at 7:39 am

This is a well-intentioned effort, but having the city staff actively involved in neighborhood associations is a very undemocratic idea.
Since the defeat of the Maybell project the staff has been trying to create a counter-movement to neighborhood associations.
Offering information and assistance is fine, but please do not let this well-meaning but dangerous idea go forward. Government interference in citizen voluntary groups is not healthy.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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