The City of Palo Alto's planned Engagement with Neighborhoods initiative took a step forward on Tuesday night after the Policy and Services Committee voted unanimously to recommend two community meetings with neighborhoods this fall.
The program, which is designed to increase city engagement with neighborhoods, will kick off with a meeting in September and a second in November in two neighborhoods or clusters of neighborhoods. City staff and two or three council members will attend the meetings where two or three topics of neighborhood interest and concern will be addressed.
The program is based on an April 20 colleague's memo by Mayor Karen Holman and Councilmen Pat Burt, Greg Schmid and Cory Wolbach, which suggested seven actions to bring staff, elected officials and neighborhood groups together face to face.
The recommendations included recognizing neighborhood associations and placing the associations on the city's Community Partners website; exploring guidelines and costs for periodic free use of available public facilities for public meetings; providing small, one-time startup grants for neighborhood associations for training of their administration and governance; providing notification about proposed city projects affecting a particular neighborhood through "town hall" meetings; working with designated "communications officers" who would act as liaisons with city staff; and creating an ombudsman program with neighborhoods to follow up on issues and aid in conflict resolution.
The Policy and Services Committee took up four staff recommendations. In addition to holding the first two meetings, the committee recommended that staff return in January 2016 with a program evaluation regarding attendance, the results of discussions and use of staff time.
The committee voted in favor of recommending a $10,000 grant program for the remainder of the fiscal year to provide startup grants for neighborhood associations to use to attend the United Neighborhoods of Santa Clara County Annual Conference and toward initiating neighborhood associations. The funding would come from the City Council's contingency account, which contains $250,000 and is rarely used.
Committee members also voted to direct staff to return in January with an update to the Community Services Department's Co-Sponsorship Agreement, which would allow neighborhood associations to use city facilities for meetings at no charge and to look at options for waiving insurance fees for the meetings at the facilities.
Staff would also return to the committee with a plan for a study session with neighborhood leaders to develop the neighborhood-engagement initiative, including an association definition, models for support, communication and conflict resolution, the ombudsman concept, inclusion on the city's website and social media for neighborhoods.
These recommendations were accepted unanimously and will now go to the City Council.
Much of the discussion centered around the town hall-style meetings, which committee members liked. But they had concerns about putting the city's 37 identified neighborhoods into nine groupings for the meetings, as recommended by staff. The effort, they said, might be burdensome on staff, since they would have to attend so many meetings.
Some committee members recommended breaking the groupings into quadrants based on police precincts, but Councilman Marc Berman said the quadrant concept is "not micro enough" to allow the city and neighborhoods to address individual concerns.
Chairman Burt agreed, saying that grouping in quadrants would move away from sense of shared interest among the neighborhoods, and topics that will be addressed at the meetings would be too broad to be meaningful.
In his past experiences and as a former mayor, Burt said the city manager "didn't have to do a whole lot of customization from neighborhood to neighborhood" when preparing for other town hall meetings.
A certain portion of content would be focused on a certain neighborhood if a specific plan related to that neighborhood was going to be discussed by the council or committees, but in general there would be broader topics that the city could address.
Burt said he does not anticipate much preparation by staff, especially if facility and refreshment preparations are done by the neighborhood associations.
The committee did choose to remove the words "on a quarterly basis" from their recommendation for the number of annual meetings.
In relation to the number of times each quarter that the meetings would be held, "I don't think doing it every month or every two months would be too much of a staff burden," Burt said.
The committee chose instead to let the two meetings in September and November serve as pilots for information-gathering and analysis of how to proceed successfully.
Councilman Cory Wolbach expressed a desire to make sure the events are city-led. Some organizations are stronger than others, Wolbach said, and he wants to make sure that neighborhood residents feel that they are equally and strongly represented.
Tom Dubois said he had attended Midtown Residents Association quarterly meetings and found their focus on two to three topics to be a good amount that allowed for in-depth and informative discussions. He also recommended including apartment tenants and senior-housing residents in the town hall groups.
Burt also noted that in grouping the neighborhoods for meetings, staff should consider not just location, but which neighborhoods have common ground around particular issues. There is a danger that some smaller neighborhoods might feel left out if discussions are dominated by topics of interest to larger organizations, committee members said.
The committee also recommended funding the city's "Know Your Neighbors" grant program with an additional $25,000 for this year.
That program allocates $25,000 annually in $1,000 increments for community-building activities. About 90 percent of the money has gone toward block parties, staff noted.