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Let's get engaged

Original post made on Feb 26, 2008

The concept of civic engagement -- in vogue since the publication of Harvard University scholar Robert Putnam's 2000 treatise "Bowling Alone" -- gained traction in Palo Alto after it was selected one of four 2008 city priorities by the council Jan. 12. Photos by Norbert von der Groeben/Palo Alto Weekly.

  • Profile: Palo Altans for Government Effectiveness

  • Ways to engage in Palo Alto

    Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, February 26, 2008, 1:27 PM
  • Comments (14)

    Like this comment
    Posted by Howard
    a resident of Crescent Park
    on Feb 26, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    The article asserts: "The concept of civic engagement -- in vogue since the publication of Harvard University scholar Robert Putnam's 2000 treatise "Bowling Alone" -- gained traction in Palo Alto after it was selected one of four 2008 city priorities by the council Jan. 12."

    What absolute nonsense. We have a city manager form of government -- as appropriate for a city of this size. That means that the city manager, and his or her staff, run the day to day affairs of the city. There is a city council that hires and fires the city manager, and enacts overall policy in the form of ordinances and resolutions. They are elected periodically by the residents, and represent them at the policy level.

    So where does "civic engagement" fit in? Basically, beyond voting for the city council, there is really not much place for it, and efforts to foster, encourage, or amplify "civic engagement" is a fruitless exercise.

    Indeed, it is somewhat meritricious, because it unnaturally elevates the "professional" city council gadflies who have no life of their own and show up at meetings with their pet peeves and idiosyncratic causes.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Yawn
    a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
    on Feb 27, 2008 at 9:43 am

    More gobbledygook from rich, retired Palo Altans with too much time on their hands.

    Like this comment
    Posted by pat
    a resident of Midtown
    on Feb 27, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Although I’m a cynic, I think civic engagement is a good concept. BUT – it’s not worth the time (or the yet-to-be-determined amount of money) being spent on it. And it shouldn’t mean we all have to go to meetings or join an association to be heard.

    The goal really seems to be to have lots more get-togethers where everyone can pat themselves on the back and feel good: The Palo Alto Way.

    For those of us who have any criticisms of the city, we’re just wasting our breath: "It is not a time when citizens come together and complain and point fingers and tell the city what it should do. That's not civic engagement.”

    Business as usual -- with more meetings.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Mike
    a resident of College Terrace
    on Feb 27, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    from the article:
    "In the article, they argued that an individual can be engaged, advocating his or her own position, but if no one takes the broader position and represents the entire community, engagement simply pits individuals or groups against each other.

    "Decisions should serve the community as a whole, not just a segment, they wrote."

    The impulse toward inclusiveness is a good one. Certainly, many, many (the majority) of our residents are too negaged with their lives to involve themselves in matter of policy. That's true everywhere - even in places like Berkeley, CA and Cambridge, MA (two very "involved" communities).

    With that, I see in all of this a fear of robust engagement over issues. Sometimes things get heated; we must keep that in mind, but also bear in mind that those we disagree most vehemently with are good people, every one of them. It's too easy to marginalize the whole person, based on a simple subset of differing opinions.

    That said, if PAGE really wants to execute on its plan, it should reach in a determined way to those who are traditionally not engaged (residential renters come immediately to mind; students are another group) and execute on a plan to make them better informed.

    Policy has a place in that. There is SO MUCH technology available that can be leverage for the kind of engagement that's being discussed.

    Hopefully, we'll some of this happen.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Tired of the Crazy Talk
    a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
    on Feb 27, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    > Annette Glanckopf Ashton, a founder of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN),
    > a consortium of neighborhood groups, said she considers emergency
    > preparedness the "true model" of civic engagement.

    This is crazy talk.

    We pay billions for government to provide these services. What does this lady know about "emergency preparedness"? And if she turns out to be wrong, and caused me bodily harm or property damage--can I sue her for malpractice, malfeasance or failure to perform?

    Like this comment
    Posted by Annette knows best
    a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
    on Feb 27, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    She is a neighborhood leader--that means she knows what is best for her neighborhood and the city as a whole. That is why she is the head of PAN

    Like this comment
    Posted by Dave
    a resident of Downtown North
    on Feb 27, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    Tired. Apparently you don't understand what the City's Emergency Preparedness program is. It is meant to have residents help one another when community services such as fire and police are overwhelmed in a major disaster. With 60,000 full time residents a major earthquake would be beyond the ability of the small number of firefighters and police on duty to handle. Most of the firefighters and police live many miles away and would not be able to reach Palo Alto if roads and highways were unusable.

    Government is set up to handle mostly routine affairs, not disasters. Only citizens helping one another can do that. Ms Aston and others have spent a great deal of time and have received guidance from fire and law enforcement both locally and regionally. So she and others have a lot of knowledge about how citizens can help themselves and their neighbors in an emergency.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Tired of the Crazy Talk
    a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
    on Feb 27, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    > Government is set up to handle mostly
    > routine affairs, not disasters

    Oh .. Yeah .. You're right .. We all learned that from watching the New Orleans City Government handle their "disaster" so well.

    > routine affairs, not disasters

    So .. if Palo Alto were to be struck with an Atomic Bomb (for instance) .. government would not be able to handle this -- but Annette person (whoever she is) would be able to tell people what to do while the hapless government stooges just stand on the sidelines and take notes?

    Like this comment
    Posted by Resident
    a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
    on Feb 27, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    The best way to get involved in civic engagement is at the neighborhood level. Get to know your neighbors. Do you help each other out? Do you keep an eye on elderly neighbors? Do you watch out for each other's kids? Do you put out trash and keep an eye on mail for vacationing neighbors? Do you watch for suspicious activity and act on it when you notice something odd?

    Civic engagement is what good neighbors have always done. Getting people to do more is the next step.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Mike
    a resident of College Terrace
    on Feb 27, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    Ms Ashton is correct in stating that the "emergency preparedness" efforts were a good example of community engagement. In fact, community engagement and participation was encouraged by our Public Safety officials. PAN and the other neighborhood groups that participated are to be congratulated. Citizens need to help other citizens, if and when the time comes for that.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Tired of the Crazy Talk
    a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
    on Feb 27, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    Educators for Community Engagement:
    Web Link
    Educators for Community Engagement is the only national organization committed to democratizing classrooms and communities through learning circles, service-learning, and critical dialogue.

    Oh .. this is all about "Learning Circles" .. why didn't they just say so? ..

    We can all get together in a big circle and "solve the community's problems" .. it's all so simple now that it's been explained ..

    Like this comment
    Posted by Not so fast
    a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
    on Feb 28, 2008 at 9:26 am

    Making "Civic Engagement" a top city priority is perfect for our City Council. this will give them another excuse for not making decisions--i.e. the people have not been heard, we must engage the residents etc.
    Then the council can focus on important things--climate change and hiring more consultants.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Annette
    a resident of Midtown
    on Feb 28, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    This is the real Annette. I hesitate to jump into the fray but want to set the record straight on a most important issue facing our city; that of emergency preparedness. I have been working on this since 2001 with Judy Kleinberg and many others. I am passionate about this issue and take comments about my/our effort seriously. I hope to convince readers to join your neighborhood association's efforts on this and be part of the solution.

    First: There is no question as to the importance. The city council choose this as a top priority in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, the council directed staff to include this in the action items under the priority of civic engagement.

    This is a topic of national importance,discussion and planning. It includes natural disasters, terrorist activities and medical pandemics. Plus we have a local focus on crime.

    Second: I wam not the leader of PAN (Palo Alto Neighborhoods.) I was a co-founder of this communications and networking group along with current Council member and previous mayor Yoriko Kishimoto. I am currently the Chair of the PAN committee for emergency preparedness, and as such, I am the key spokesperson for the group. My comments are based on group discussions - the result of over 2.5 years of intense meetings. Our meetings have not just included neighborhood association leaders. We tried to include many other stakeholder groups - the City (interested council members and staff including Police and Fire representatives), the Red Cross, the Schools, Avenidas, the neighborhood centers and several of the local health care entities, I do not claim to be an expert, but my credentials might surprise you.

    Third: What we are doing does not to replace or duplicate the city's or any "disaster service worker" efforts - it is complimentary. For full details of the program, see Our effort is to bring our community together by first knowing your neighbor. In a major disaster, disaster service workers will triage their efforts. There are only 32 firefighters on duty on any given day, and it takes 15 -20 firefighters to respond safely to one full-structure incident. Only 2 large fires could be managed at one time. Thus our non-unique message - each person must be prepared to be independent for 3-7 days without help. We advocate the Red Cross steps to preparedness - educate your self, gather supplies, develop a family plan, get trained etc. If residents are not prepared, when disaster strikes, there will be chaos and confusion. Our efforts will lead to a resilient community. "Chance favors those who prepare"

    Calls from each of the 25,000 households to the city, would immediately overwhelm the system. To address this, a companion effort has been to define and implement a VOLUNTEER network to communicate status (of each block) from and to the city. These efforts would not be heroic, thus no liability would be involved.

    To close, it is not helpful to the public to write sound bites that mis-communicate information especially on such as serious subject.
    Thanks to those who have written to support our work and who have joined our effort. Please read the details at Then I would be happy to hear your ideas and suggestions.

    Like this comment
    Posted by Julie Fanselow
    a resident of another community
    on Mar 4, 2008 at 11:42 am

    This is a really interesting article. It's good to see that Palo Altans have already worked together on a key issue: emergency preparedness. But it's also not surprising to read how many people are understandably skeptical of plans for more public engagement.

    I work for an organization called Everyday Democracy and I just wanted to say that we have tons of (mainly free) resources for communities that want to do this sort of work. I've just noted your story at our blog,

    Web Link

    and you can link from there to our website, where you can download discussion and action guides for a wide range of issues; read lots of stories about how other communities have boosted real civic participation; and contact us if you need any more help and info.

    After reading this story, I believe your officials and grassroots organizers seem to realize there's a lot more to civic engagement than public hearings and surveys, and that real engagement involving large, diverse groups of people can help weave Palo Alto together as a tighter network of neighborhoods, city services, faith communities, schools, businesses, and so on. Good luck with this journey!

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

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