Neighborhood groups in Palo Alto can be tough to define, let alone engage, but the City Council wants to give it a shot.
On Tuesday night, the council's Policy and Services Committee considered the best ways to do just that. One idea that proved popular on Tuesday is a series of Town Hall meetings set in neighborhoods throughout the city. Another proposal would allow neighborhood associations to use public facilities for events free of charge.
These ideas, as well as others, grew out of a colleagues memo that was co-signed in March by Mayor Karen Holman, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and Councilmen Pat Burt and Cory Wolbach. Aimed at strengthening the city's engagement with neighborhoods, the memo proposes a wide range of new initiatives, including better recognition of local neighborhood associations, free use of community rooms for these groups and the creation of a new ombudsman position that would be tasked with following up on neighborhood issues.
The memo calls the proposed programs "the City's fist comprehensive neighborhood engagement initiative."
The committee agreed Tuesday that some of the proposals in the memo require far more analysis and will take longer to implement than others. Recognizing a neighborhood association, for example, could prove a particularly tricky task given the wide range of ways in which these groups define themselves. While some neighborhoods, including Downtown North, Midtown and College Terrace, have well-established associations with strong organizational structures, most groups are much smaller and less formal in nature.
Verifying an "official" neighborhood association can pose another challenge, particularly when two separate groups are purporting to represent their neighborhood. Burt recalled a period in the 1990s when two different groups vied for representation of Downtown North.
So far, neighborhood groups aren't exactly basking in City Hall's love. While the city's offer to waive the fees for community rooms drew enthusiastic support from neighborhood associations, its effort to create standards for neighborhood associations proved far less popular.
Brent Barker, president of the College Terrace Residents Association, cautioned the city that attempting to come to an agreement on a "set of top-down standards may be an exercise in futility."
"At best, it would take years of back and forth meetings," Barker wrote to the council in March. "Instead, to get moving quickly, the City should encourage it, seed it, nurture it, but let governance rise naturally from the neighborhoods themselves."
Annettee Glanckopf, co-founder of the umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, wrote that she would "strongly propose that any definition or new programs be with the participation of and in conjunction with PAN."
"It should be left to individual citizens who live in particular areas to organize however they want, with the possibility of overlap, rivalry, splinter groups, etc," Glanckopf wrote.
Sherri Furman, chair of Palo Alto Neighborhoods, also asked the council not to make things too complicated. The PAN website, she noted, already includes a link to every neighborhood group, including the neighborhood's boundary and the contact of a neighborhood representative.
"We'd like to keep the process as simple as possible to make sure we don't place an undue burden on staff nor create an unnecessary bureaucracy," Furman said.
The four-member committee, which includes Burt, Wolbach and Councilmen Marc Berman and Tom DuBois, made it clear that it has no intention of setting strict standards for neighborhood groups. DuBois proposed a laissez-faire approach in which every neighborhood group does what it wants and the city recognizes them all.
"I believe we can accomplish a lot of this with a light touch and not a lot of staff work," DuBois said. "A lot of these concerns we've been hearing are about heavy-handedness."
Burt, who chairs the Policy and Services Committee, proposed creating an ad hoc group composed of council members and neighborhood associations to further vet the issue. The committee will further discuss this proposal at a future meeting. Part of the apprehension from neighborhood leaders, he said, was based on "a misconception that the city would be co-opting the neighborhood groups."
"That's far from the intent here," Burt said.
He suggested that there might be some guidelines or "minimal standards" but nothing too prescriptive.
The idea to hold Town Hall meetings throughout the city proved far less complicated Tuesday. Wolbach said he liked the idea of the city directly engaging neighborhoods to learn about issues that trouble them. Each meeting would include a few council members and ample opportunities for residents to ask questions.
"I think the idea of having meetings like this is to really focus on what are the issues going on in the city that relate to this part of town and what are the issues that people in that part of town are facing that they want the city to think about," Wolbach said. "The city should take the initiative sometimes. We should take the lead."
The waiver of fees for neighborhood meetings also proved popular, both with neighborhood leaders and council members.
Fred Balin, a member of the College Terrace Residents Association, noted that before his association began to hold its board meetings at the University Lutheran Church, it relied on residents' homes.
This may have restricted attendance, with members who did not know the host being less likely to attend. Having well-publicized meetings at a "neutral" facility like a community center "gives a strong message of inclusion with regard to neighborhood matters, strengthens engagement and promotes openness," Balin wrote to the council.
Glanckopf pointed out that most neighborhood groups "do not have bank accounts." Paying for space, she wrote, reduces any monies raised to directly support neighborhood activities.
DuBois and Berman concurred that free meeting space is among the most significant proposals in the memo and one that should be further explored.
"There are some things that are quite easy fixes, including the waiving of the fees for meeting rooms," Berman said. "That should be at the top of our priority list, in terms of addressing the concerns of residents."