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Civic Engagement in Palo Alto

Cynthia Gibson, author of Citizens At The Center, just forwarded us the following article about the growth of civic engagement in Palo Alto, CA. Please note the bold text near the end of the article.

Civic Engagement is New Palo Alto City Priority
city council members see engagement as a tool for achieving city goals, gaining support for library bond
by Becky Trout, Palo Alto Online Staff (January 12, 2008)

Generically endorsing a proposal pitched by a broad coalition of community groups, the Palo Alto City Council Saturday adopted “civic engagement” as one of four top city priorities for 2008.

Continue reading the article…

Building community ties should not be thought of as “an outlay of expenditures” but as “a tool that enables the achievement of other things,” Councilman Pat Burt said.

The other three priorities at the council’s Saturday-morning retreat include (1) constructing a new library/community center and a public safety building, (2) protecting the environment and (3) enhancing the city’s economic health.

The four priorities, which will receive emphasized focus from city staff throughout the year, received the broadest support out of a list of eight issues suggested by council members.

The library and public safety projects and civic engagement each received eight votes, focusing on the city’s economic well-being garnered seven votes and six council members voted to make environmental protection a priority.

Emergency preparedness, a top priority for the last two years, was dropped from the list after receiving only four votes, but will remain important, council and staff members said.

“I just want to say over and over again, just because something isn’t a priority, that doesn’t mean we don’t care,” Mayor Larry Klein said.
And removal from the list does not mean the city will stop preparing for an earthquake or flood, City Manager Frank Benest said.

“If you don’t make it a priority, it’ll get done, but we’re just not going to be as strictly accountable” in terms of making regular reports, City Manager Frank Benest said.

About 20 members of the public attended the four-hour meeting in the Fireside Room at the Lucie Stern Community Center, packing the small room, which was also filled with city staff and managers and with members of city boards or commissions.

The entreaty to focus on public involvement came from Palo Altans for Government Effectiveness (PAGE), a community group that has hosted several discussions and distributed papers on the issue of creating “social capital,” or building community ties. Other organizations–Avenidas, Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto, the Chamber of Commerce, the Palo Alto Council of PTAs and the Stanford Division of Continuing Studies and Youth Community Service– also support PAGE’s effort.

PAGE laid out a set of goals, including reviving a citizen’s leadership academy and conducting a baseline study of the Palo Alto’s existing social capital.

By involving community members, the city will become stronger and more representative, and residents and business leaders will feel greater satisfaction and investment, a proposal distributed by PAGE states.

Ray Bacchetti, a PAGE board member, called it a “highly pragmatic project” that would help the city achieve its goals, including building support for rebuilding libraries and a public safety building.

Human Relations Commissioner Shauna Mora also asked the council to adopt civic engagement as a priority.

That will mean reaching out to people, she said: “One of the ways to encourage more diversity and active participants is to give them more information and encourage them to participate.”

People mainly attend city meetings when they are afraid or angry, she said.

“Wouldn’t it be great when they actually show up because they want to participate?”

The council did not adopt PAGE’s suggestions as its priority, but council members indicated they liked the direction.

“It’s not simply saying ‘Hey folks, we’re interested (in your participation),'” Councilman John Barton said.

“It’s very much a proactive outreach. It’s a different outreach than we’re doing. It’s a long process that’s going to involve new folks.”

It also involves humility, Barton said.

“It isn’t what we want. It’s finding out what the community wants and engaging them on that,” Barton said.

One way the city can increase public involvement is by revamping its Web site to encourage citizen contributions, several council members said, including use of new “Web 2.0” interactive features a number of other communities are already using.

Establishing civic engagement as a priority will encourage city leaders to reach out to the city’s older generation and growing ethnic groups, Councilman Yiaway Yeh said.

At least one council member, Jack Morton, said his views about civic engagement changed during the meeting.

“I’m wondering about the timing. If we as a council are to adopt community engagement, is that what we were elected to do?” Morton asked relatively early in the meeting.

But after hearing from his colleagues and the public, Morton said he had been persuaded that focusing on community involvement would help the council achieve its other goals rather than compete with them.

The council began the 8:30 a.m. to noon meeting discussing its operating protocols.

New member Sid Espinosa suggested the city find a way to improve its decision-making process, particularly by offering the community and council members an opportunity to ask questions about issues before a council meeting.

Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison said the city conducted a six-month experiment several years ago to try to provide meeting materials more than a week ahead of the meeting.

That became very confusing because information for two meetings was circulating at the same time, Harrison said. She said city staff members try to provide background material for major issues as early as possible and that holding non-voting “study sessions” to introduce an issue and answer questions had been successful.

On a 5-4 vote <0x2014>— with Vice Mayor Peter Drekmeier and council members Morton, Yeh and Greg Schmid voting no — the council agreed to ask its Policy and Services Committee to discuss releasing city staff reports earlier and improving the council’s decision-making process.

Benest said he would return to the council with the priorities “in an aggressive but doable form” in several weeks.

Andy Fluke
Andy Fluke is the co-founder of NCDD and currently provides creative support to many of NCDD's publications and events. He also works with a handful of other NCDD members on a variety of projects as consultant and designer. More about his work can be found at www.andyfluke.com.

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