City Council

Los Altos Community Engagement Workgroups need Community Members

Relying mainly on in person meetings for community engagement disadvantages younger residents of Los Altos. At this community meeting sponsored by Los Altos Forward we see mostly gray hair.
Relying mainly on in person meetings for community engagement disadvantages younger residents of Los Altos. At this community meeting sponsored by Los Altos Forward we see mostly gray hair.
Written by lalahpolitico

The Los Altos City Council’s initiative to improve “Los Altos community engagement” is gaining steam. Mayor Pro Tem Prochow and Councilmember Pepper now form the Council’s ad hoc subcommittee and are continuing the workplan into 2016.  They have defined 3 intiatives to enhance Los Altos community engagement and in the near future will be recruiting community members to help.

“Young Family” Demographic – public, private, parochial

To that end the ad hoc subcommittee is now reaching out to the public school districts — Los Altos School District, the PTA council of presidents, the Cupertino School District — and the associated PTA presidents to determine the best format and schedule for the next community engagement roundtable targeting the this demographic.

Lalahpolitico: Great, but what about the estimated 20%+ young family who have chosen the charter school or an independent school?  At minimum how about engaging with Pinewood, St. Nicholas and Bullis Charter School? Maybe some preschools even?

Public school district engagement meetings of course can attract a younger family demographic

Public school district engagement meetings of course can attract a younger family demographic

“Neighborhoods” for Los Altos Community Engagement

Prochow and Pepper expect to form a working group consisting of some city staff and community members to flesh out the idea of defining neighborhoods which would have regular meetings. The working group would research the concept and creating a proposal which Council would consider enacting.  Desirable or not? Effective or not?

Lalahpolitico: I know Mountain View has had City sponsored “neighborhoods”  My impression is that after the excitement of the new wears off, neighborhood volunteers get tired and the websites and email lists get tattered.  Yet some big issues of zoning, traffic and school closings do excite some participation. However, most MV citizen activists save their communications for the formal, big council meetings school board meetings.  Routine neighborhood meetings can be poorly attended.  Lalahpolitico contends that what the Mountain View City sponsored neighborhoods meetings do provide is a way for the well-meaning local government candidates to meet and greet “highly likely voters,” especially in the run-up to elections. Maybe that is enough of a reason to form City of Los Altos sponsored neighborhoods.

But is election outreach a good enough reason? Probably not.  There is already a private sector solution — nextdoor.com City of Los Altos should just pay the company to use its communication services to publicize any ad hoc face-to-face meetings. For example, if the City wants to explain planned changes to the El Monte and San Antonio intersections along Foothill, announce that on next-door.com, Los Altos Town Crier, Facebook, Twitter. Then let people decide for themselves if they are part of “the neighborhood” being affected. Having fixed boundaries for neighborhoods is counterproductive.

What would be the purpose of regular “neighborhood” meetings with neighborhood honchos?  Keep the election wheels oiled? Pleez no. Lalahpolitico associates such things with the history of totalitarian regimes – creepy.

nextdoor.com has a well established network of participation. It could be hard for the City to duplicate that social graph. Why try? nextdoor.com offers services to Cities, not just individuals

nextdoor.com has a well established network of participation. It could be hard for the City to duplicate that social graph. Why try? nextdoor.com offers services to Cities, not just individuals

Technology for Los Altos Community Engagement

Prochow and Pepper will form a “Technology” working group of community members and some staff to “define the needs, identify preferred tools/applications, evaluation by staff on cost, feasibility and sustainability, projection of how effective tools/applications will be in accomplishing enhanced community engagement.”  The resulting proposal could simply be implemented by staff or brought before council for consideration.

Lalahpolitico:  City staff has already signed up for what may be a trial subscription to Peak Democracy’s Town Hall “managed/moderated” discussion board online service. City Manager Marcia Sommers mentioned in December that creating a “topic” about City-School Public Lands use could be a first real test of the online Town Hall software.  This is a great idea. However, this activity does tend to attract the “high-involvement” active citizen who can write.  But at least it lets busy working parents, many of whom are well-educated and can write,  type out their opinions any old time day or night.  It is so hard for this demographic to show up at meatspace meetings.  This new software should be promoted to the “young family” demographic at the planned Roundtable meatspace meeting.  A virtual Town Hall should be very helpful with follow up.  Instead of just posting comments on Los Altos Town Crier and Facebook, people – especially parents – can also post them on the virtual Town Hall. The software has GIS and AI processing, so that staff and council can get some pretty interesting reports about the level or support for this and that, sorted by location.  Of course participation is NOT anonymous and is vetted.

City Manager Marcia Sommers with Council member Jeannie Bruins at a community engagement meeting in 2014. In 2015 Bruins was part of the Council's ad hoc engagement sub committee. In 2016 she is Mayor and Council member Prochow will take her place on the ad hoc Community Engagement subcommittee alongside Council member Jan Pepper,

City Manager Marcia Sommers with then Council member Jeannie Bruins at a community engagement event sponsored by Los Altos Forward  in 2014. In 2015 Bruins was part of the Council’s ad hoc engagement sub committee. In 2016 she is Mayor and very busy, so Mayor Pro Tem Prochow will take Jeannie’s place on the ad hoc Community Engagement subcommittee alongside Council member Jan Pepper who is continuing in that role.

But a lot of residents are “low-involvement” and prefer passive activity. These are the spectators, the lurkers. But that’s all good too. They will listen and form a more informed opinion.  A lot of people are narrowly interested in changes that affect them personally, not the greater welfare.  Nothing wrong with that.  For these folks…web/mobile phone apps like Building Eye (alerts you to a building permit near your house), See Click Fix (report and track burned out street lights you encounter, fallen tree limbs on along your daily walk), textizen ( see a sign while out on a walk, type a the sign’s code, and get information about a meeting, a coming improvement projects, etc.); there are online charrettes which developers can set up.  Participating cities and developers can get reports on engagement online with these tools. There are probably a couple hundred of such “me” apps. The city could use some kind of  meeting reservation form like Eventbrite or similar. Socrata takes a city’s financial data and presents an web interface wherein the users can slice and dice the numbers in all kinds of ways, generating graphs and charts.  Maybe TMI? Nah. Let’s share.

Seniors are a special case.  As our residents age, they will tend to be uninterested in trying yet another new software program.  For them: the Town Crier, email lists, and perhaps even phone trees?  The City already has a good bunch of list servers to send out stuffy, official City meeting agendas.  But those are for “high-involvement” residents. The City website holds a trove of great and sometimes fun info which is well-presented, and it updated daily.  However, few people see the website changes unless they hear about them through RSS or a weekly email blast.  Who visits a website home page any more!  The City could  automagically generate a “fun” weekly newsletter from new posts on its Drupal website. Most seniors still read email.

Go take a look at what SPUR.org  does with their email newsletter to create awareness for its upcoming events which are also posted on its website.  Lalahpolitico suggests the City create its own  upcoming events “public relations” posts  with colorful pics in a similar manner to SPUR.  You know, the week ahead plus stuff that happened this past month.  Seniors and a lot of other people would subscribe to that.  As with list serves, one can see how many email “opens” and “ link clicks” each edition gets. Of course, continue to work with the Town Crier.  Marketing 101 says to do “multi-channel” repetition of the message…see it on a sign, see it in an email, see it on Facebook, see it on next-door.com, etc.

CONCLUSION:

Technology is embedded in ALL Engagement

Whether it is orchestrating a face-to-face roundtable meeting  for the young family demographic, promoting “neighborhood” level meetings, or holding virtual meetings online with Peak Democracy, technology will be helpful throughout all the Los Altos community engagement efforts.  Thus the Technology workgroup should embed liaisons in the Young Family Demographic outreach workgroup  and in the Neighborhood workgroup.  Perhaps there should be a Senior Demographic workgroup too.

Call for ad hoc Volunteers in the Coming Weeks

The City Council may take action on these ad hoc workgroups at its Jan. 12 meeting. The call for community members to volunteer could show up on the website and Town Crier in the coming weeks.

Sensible Changes to Standing Committees/Commissions

At this same council meeting, the council could approve some very sensible changes to the terms of all the standing Commissions and Committees and the recruitment process.  Terms would expire in March and September, rather all in February. If a member quits, the position will stay vacant till the next recruitment period.  Instead of having peaks of 25 interviews in February of odd years, about 8 to 10 recruitments will occur each March and September, spreading out the work of recruitment.

Recruitment of Los Altos Committee members can be quite a chore for staff a council when terms are all bunched up. Terms of service will change to spread recruitment much more evenly over the years. So sensible.

Recruitment of Los Altos Committee members can be quite a chore for staff a council when terms are all bunched up. Terms of service will change to spread recruitment much more evenly over the years. So sensible.

UPATE Jan. 14.  At the Jan. 13 council meeting, Jeannie Bruins and council relaxed the requirement that applicants attend at least one commission meeting from MUST to “strongly recommend.”

Changes to the application process: Now all applicants MUST  are “strongly suggested”  to have attended at least one meeting of the committee/commission they propose joining. Alternatively they may meet with two commissioners from the commission they are applying to.  They must declare a single committee they propose to join, rather than provide a list of alternatives they would also be willing to serve on.  The ads in the Town Crier will include the new application guidelines and preferences. 

The recruitment changes seem very sensible.

About the author

lalahpolitico

Norma Schroder is an economics & market researcher by trade and ardent independent journalist, photographer and videographer by avocation. Enthralled by the growth of the tech industry over the decades, she became fascinated with the business of local politics only in the past couple of years.

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