Seeking to strengthen the ties that bind City Hall to the city's 37 neighborhoods, the Palo Alto City Council on Monday agreed to explore a slew of new initiatives, including free use of public facilities by neighborhood associations, more information sharing and a new ombudsman program that would follow up on pressing neighborhood issues.
The proposals were introduced earlier this year in a colleagues memo from Mayor Karen Holman, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and Councilmen Pat Burt and Cory Wolbach. On Monday night, the council voted unanimously to have its Policy and Services Committee vet the ideas further.
The memo cites the city's expanding social media efforts and its recent strides to make more information available to the public, which includes construction updates from the Development Services Department, and the Open Data Portal that allows residents to easily obtain information like the city's budget and recreational services. Its purpose is to "build on these efforts" while adding much more face-to-face contact, the memo states.
Some of the ideas are fairly straight-forward and easy to implement. The four council members proposed, for example, recognizing neighborhood associations on the city's website with links to each neighborhood and association website. They also encourage each neighborhood association to identify a "communication officer" as an information liaison to the city.
Others will require more analysis. Among the most ambitious is the new ombudsman program with neighborhoods "to follow up on neighborhood or resident issues and facilitate conflict resolution when needed," the memo reads. The memo also acknowledges that the program would take some time to develop and may need to be considered in the budget cycle.
The committee will also explore a proposal to provide free use of public facilities to neighborhood associations for meetings. The memo also proposes one-time start-up grants for neighborhood associations to be used to attend the United Neighborhoods of Santa Clara County's annual conference and toward neighborhood association initiation activities.
The city already has a neighborhood-grants program called "Know Your Neighbors," an initiative that was unveiled in 2013 under then-Mayor Yiaway Yeh. The memo notes that the funds from these grants often don't go far enough in facilitating neighborhood activities.
"While this program has been very popular, frequent comments about the program include that the grant money is spent on permits for use of public facilities or street closure permits for block parties, leaving little funding for the event itself," the memo states. "The proposed programs below would be the City's first comprehensive neighborhood engagement initiative."
The one proposal in the memo that won't require new grants, positions or technological upgrades is to hold annual town hall-style meetings with council representatives and city staff "focused on different regions of Palo Alto.
"The meetings shall encourage both individual and neighborhood association participation," the memo states.
While the council has yet to fully delve into the issues, several residents have already stepped forward to endorse the memo's proposals. Annette Glanckopf, co-founder of the umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, strongly supported the new initiatives, particularly the move to make public space available for neighborhood meetings.
"Finding a space for neighborhood groups to meet without charge has been challenging," Glanckopf wrote in a letter to the council. "Some of us, have been fortunate to have the support of local churches or schools for meeting space; although sometimes with a charge. Most neighborhoods do not have bank accounts. Pay for space, reduces any monies raised to directly support neighborhood activities."
Glanckopf was more skeptical about the county's United Neighborhoods conference, which she said focuses on San Jose activities, and the ombudsman program. Such a program, she said, should be done in conjunction with Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), a coalition of various neighborhood associations, or through PAN's executive committee.
"I would not support any new city paid staff for an ombudsman program," she wrote.
Fred Balin, a College Terrace resident and long-time government watchdog, asked the council to clarify the the ombudsman's role would be to help residents "navigate" and move to a "next-best resource in their quest for further information or clarification about a matter."
The ombudsman should not, however, be a new "single point of connection" through which neighborhoods would funnel issues, he added.
Residents should still feel free to pick up the phone or email other city officials to obtain information or resolve issues, he argued.
"It needs to be made clear to the public that Colleagues Memo does not imply in any way a reduction in who can contact and interact with staff," Balin said.
Like Glanckopf, Balin praised the proposal to make public facilities freely available for neighborhood meetings. His association currently holds board meetings at the University Lutheran Church. Before that, those meetings took place at residents' homes, where "the various owners/tenants may have had a natural inclination to restrict attendance, and residents who did not know the host well may have been less likely to attend."
Doria Summa, also a College Terrace resident, likewise praised the proposal for free facility use in her comments to the City Council on Monday. She said she supported neighborhood associations having more opportunities to meet in public facilities "without the financial burden of paying for the space and taking out insurance." Summa also had broader praise for the proposal and its goal to improving neighborhood engagement.
"I believe the goal of increasing neighborhood participation and interaction between city government and neighborhoods is a laudable goal and the specific recommendations in the memo represent a step forward in reaching that goal," Summa said.