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Civic Participation - Please remain open to additional milestones

Original post made by Karen White, Duveneck/St. Francis, on Apr 7, 2008

Honorable City Council:

As you consider milestones for your civic-engagement priority, please remain open to future opportunities. Among specific reasons are the following.

1. Neighborhood leaders have not yet had an opportunity to meet with Ed Everett to offer our perspective on ways to enhance civic participation. A meeting is scheduled for April 15, after tonight's milestones will have been established.

2. Additional research is needed into the ways nearby cities engage their residents. We can and should learn from others. Specifically:

The City of Mountain View has on its staff a Neighborhood Services Manager and, through a city grant program, funds a wide range of neighborhood-initiated activities that build community and foster civic engagement. PAN leaders will meet with Mountain View's Neighborhood Services Manager later this week to learn more.

The City of San Jose's Strong Neighborhoods program is considered highly successful at fostering civic participation. Some or all of the program's elements might be replicated here as part of a civic engagement initiative.

The City of Santa Clara has a robust and coordinated volunteer program with a direct link on that city's website. Santa Clara's program might be used as a model here, where the city and residents are viewed as skilled partners rather than as a provider/customer. From the website:

"Thank you for your interest in becoming a City of Santa Clara volunteer. Volunteering for the City is one of the best examples of government and people working together for the good of the community. It will give you an insider's look at how local government works, and an opportunity to share your talents, skills, and feedback on how to better serve our customers. We consider our volunteers one of the most diverse and rich resources in our community, and we're happy to have you join us.

The mission of the volunteer services program is to enhance city programs and services by matching the varied talents of concerned individuals and groups of all ages, interests, and skills with a wide variety of interesting and challenging municipal projects. Santa Clara volunteers are placed according to their interests and skills, as well as the needs of the City. Volunteer Services seeks to find the right opportunity for every volunteer-to assure a rewarding experience that enhances City services. The links below provide information about opportunities now available:

• Commissioners
Web Link
• Leadership Santa Clara
Web Link
• Library
Web Link
• P.A.L. Volunteers
Web Link
• Senior Center Volunteers Needed
Web Link

3. Moving forward, please identify individuals now on City staff who can mentor others in leading cultural change. In a specific recent example, I acknowledge and thank Khashayr "Cash" Alaee, Supervisor of Recreation Programs, who was extremely helpful in my effort to locate a room for a neighborhood association meeting on the upcoming PAUSD bond initiative. Further, at the end of our conversation, he took time to thank me and neighborhood leaders generally for the work we do for the Palo Alto community. Individual assistance and acknowledgment are powerful motivators for would-be volunteers.

In summary: Palo Alto Neighborhood leaders are now exploring the many ways nearby cities enhance civic engagement, with a view to identifying best practices. I ask that you remain open to considering new opportunities to supplement those staff recommends tonight.

Comments (10)

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Posted by Rick
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 7, 2008 at 1:14 pm

One problem with "Neighborhood Leaders" is that some neighborhoods apparently have self-appointed leaders or people who claim to be represening the neighborhood, but most people in the neighborhood do not know what is happening or know the leader.

These supposed leaders may have friends in the neighborhood with the same views as theirs and claim to represent the whole neighborhood.

Are there any posting of the people who are considered neighborhood leaders? City web site? City personell?

Are their any neighborhoods that don't have any leaders?
Who in the city sets this whole thing up?

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Posted by Karen White
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 7, 2008 at 1:48 pm

Rick, you can learn more about Palo Alto Neighborhoods generally and your neighborhood, Charleston Gardens, specifically by visiting the PAN website, at Web Link
In short: neighborhood associations are entirely voluntary and are an exemplar of grass-roots community and civic information-sharing and engagement. Many neighborhood leaders are also active volunteers who work with a wide variety of non-profits and other community organizations.

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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 7, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Rick raises a good point. It’s not clear how many residents of any given neighborhood are actually involved in neighborhood organizations. Even people who pay dues and subscribe to newsletters, may rarely go to meetings. I’ve been to a few MRA meetings where there were maybe 25 people in the room. A few years back, MRA hosted a presentation by the library director regarding Mitchell Park plans. I thought lots of folks would be interested, but there were less than 10 people in the audience.

There seems to be a relatively small number of people who get involved with community groups and cycle through various organizations in some sort of leadership role. I admire them for their time and energy commitment, but like Rick, I don’t know how representative their views are.

The tricky part of “civic engagement” is having the council and other civic leaders engage with individuals, not just groups. Lots of people just aren’t “joiners.” And most don’t have the time or stamina to go to city council meetings.

I would love to see council members join in these blogs. Some complain about “vitriol” and anonymous posts. I think that’s a lame excuse. Most posters are reasonable and a lot of good ideas and good discussions take place on blogs.

My biggest concern is that a lot of communication now is one way. People talk to the council, to staff, to commissioners. How many times do they hear us? How often do they respond? One council member said it’s impossible to answer all the emails Council gets. Not all emails require a response. We have nine council members. Couldn’t they divvy up the responsibility of sending answers?

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Posted by Tom
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 7, 2008 at 9:33 pm

If my neighborhood has a "neighborhood leader" will somebody please tell me who that leader might be and how that person received the title?

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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 7, 2008 at 11:15 pm

How about some goals and objectives before we talk about milestones?

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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 7, 2008 at 11:26 pm

Several weeks ago I wrote the email below to our city council. I'm happy to report that I got three responses. One told me there's too much "vitriol" on the blogs and people post anonymously. One asked me if I "have suggestions for performance measures." One will meet me to talk about the issues.

“Civic engagement” is now your number one priority. A Palo Alto Weekly editorial says this is a good priority because we need a more open government.
Web Link

I definitely want more open government! What I find troubling about this priority is that it's completely undefined. How will we know if/when you are succeeding? How do we measure you without knowing what you’re promising to do?

Shauna Mora said that people mainly attend city meetings when they are afraid or angry, and, "Wouldn't it be great when they actually show up because they want to participate?" Are fearful or angry people not seen as participating? Does civic engagement mean more meetings?

Few people have time to attend meetings, particularly those that run long and late. Yet it seems the only way to be heard is to sit through them, waiting for the opportunity to speak for three minutes. Even then, if one is critical or has a contrary opinion, one is written off as a naysayer or uncivil.

The Weekly editorial says civic engagement is worthwhile if it's constructive, but who decides what's constructive? In my experience, Council doesn’t like to hear people who disagree or criticize. And anyone who speaks with passion or emotion is quickly dismissed.

Councilwoman La Doris Cordell reacted to criticism by accusing the Palo Alto Daily of "yellow journalism." Former mayor Jim Burch shut down Aram James for criticizing the city manager at a council meeting. Burch thought it was OK to interrupt speakers who were "obstreperous" and "accusatory." Not a stellar example of civic engagement -- or free speech.

Diana Diamond wrote that some council members said civic engagement is "not for upsetting things," and, "We don't want civic engagement to divide us."
Web Link

I find those comments absolutely terrifying and completely inimical to open government! The most important reason for civic engagement is to discuss issues that are “upsetting” and controversial. If we are divided, civic engagement will help bring us together. If we all agree, there’s not much to talk about.

In the spirit of civic engagement, I would appreciate a response that tells me exactly how you intend to engage residents in open discussion about important issues. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s interested in how this priority will affect us and the future of the city.

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Posted by Juliet
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 8, 2008 at 12:42 am

You make some good points, Pat, but I think the 'civic engagement' idea is puffery from PAGE which has been promoting it for some years. As someone wrote the other day on another thread, they want less opposition to development projects. That was what Jim Burch wanted, certainly. He was a serious supporter of PAGE. And now it is Stanford that is promoting 'civic engagement.'
So I would not be misled by the sweet-talk. The underlying issues aren't all that complicated most of the time. Most of them boil down to keeping Palo Alto's size under control vs. build it big. Both the council and the town are pretty much split 50-50 on these issues, with the big money on the development side, so they win almost all the time. The public puts up opposition, but the builditbig folks have 5 votes on the council (often more) and the newspapers, so they win.
By the way, the environmental advocates mostly vote with the development interests, though they get elected by convincing the greenies that they are good people. We've been fooled many times. Too many examples, alas.

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Posted by JW
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 8, 2008 at 9:17 am

Well, I hope you all either watched or listened to the City Council's discussion last night on their 4 top priorities for 2008. A great deal of time was spend on their number one priority "Civic Engagement" with some excellent presentations by members of PAN.

Civic engagement is a huge effort on the part of our City Council and staff to get many more residents involved with their City. There are so many possibilities for residents, not least of which is attending City Council Meetings and taking your 3 minutes to speak to Agenda items.

Where should I start? Well, some neighborhoods now have websites; PAN has a website and of course there is the City's much maligned website. There are many opportunities to volunteer with the City. Several departments have volunteer coordinators waiting for your call.

The City and Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) urge all of you to get involved and be a part of Palo Alto's future.

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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 8, 2008 at 9:40 pm

“There are so many possibilities for residents, not least of which is attending City Council Meetings and taking your 3 minutes to speak to Agenda items.”

This is like a corporation saying, “We want to hear from our customers about what features they want in our new product, but the only way we’ll take input is if the customers come to our headquarters and speak to us in person.”

There are LOTS of us who are trying to be involved, trying to provide input, trying to engage. But Council members (and apparently PAN) only wants engagement on their terms, not the way constituents/customers normally communicate.

How many ordinary residents (who are not members of ANY group) does Council communicate with each month -- outside of council chambers? How many emails do they respond to? How many one-on-one conversations do they have? How much time do they spend reading the blogs? (There are 163 comments on the Town Square blog about the school bond!) How many comments have they posted on the blogs? If the answer is zero, what are they afraid of? Oh yes – too much “vitriol” online.

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Posted by Michael
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 10, 2008 at 4:54 pm

Pat. You seem to want it your way and don't like it when you don't get answers. Can't say as I blame you, but maybe you should try some of JW's suggestions. It can't hurt and may help. And if you're meeting with one council member, that's a good start.

I have been able to have one on one, albeit short, conversations with different council members before and after meetings - especially the small ones such as the Finance Committee. Without exception they have been courteous and listened without trying to cut me off. Do this often enough and I think you will make an impression.

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

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