Why the City doesn't hear residents' perspectives? It doesn't want to (part 3 of 3) | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Why the City doesn't hear residents' perspectives? It doesn't want to (part 3 of 3)

Uploaded: Dec 6, 2013
This recognize some promising, albeit understated, reactions of several of the Commissioners to a bad Staff report. The previous parts of this series addressed persistent problems that discourage and suppress public input.

This blog entry is intended to serve as a foundation for comments from people who have actual experience trying to participate as members of the public--for them to comment on that experience and/or to make suggestions. Part 1 (Web link)addressed the problems of public participation over a sequence of meetings. Part 2 (Web link) addressed the problems of participating effectively at a single meeting.
This split is both for length and to allow more focus in the comments by segregating them to the different aspects (hint, hint, hint).

The meeting that occasioned this essay was the November 13 Planning and Transportation Commission hearing on what should have been a mundane issue?the Matadero-Margarita Bicycle Boulevard?but it could just have well be a host of very similar meetings that I and many others have been involved in.

---- Terms of this discussion ----
The problem is an institutional one, a combination of a long-established culture, practices and procedures. Mentions of individuals is to be only to make examples more concrete. Various individuals--on Staff, the Council and various Commissions--have expressed their awareness and serious concern about some of this in private, but their public behavior reveals little of this.

Mentions of the Bike Boulevard proposal here are to be limited to providing concrete examples of the stated topic. For anyone who wants to hear the cited statements, I cite the time within the archived webcast.(f1)For discussion of the specifics of Bike Boulevard, please see the news article and use the on-going Town Square Forum discussion: "Commissioners kick back bike-boulevard plan: Matadero-Margarita proposal lacks bicycle-traffic data, Planning and Transportation Commissioners say" in PA Weekly November 14/15 (online/hardcopy) (Web link).
---- end Terms ... ----

The deliberations opened with one Commissioner (Panelli at 1:31) expressing dissatisfaction with the Staff report, that it failed to adequately define the problem, to give a sense of how big the problem was (for example, magnitude of bike traffic), and to state what was expected to be achieved (for subsequent evaluation of success/failure). Before you say "D'uh", recognize that this is contrary to the established culture. A complaint I have heard from multiple Council members is that they are expected to give (pro forma) thanks to Staff for their work, regardless of what they think of the quality of that work (Everyone gets a trophy simply for participating).

In subsequent comments, that Commissioner (Panelli at 2:29) reiterated and expanded on those criticisms, including citing the absence of alternatives.

Other Commissioners expressed clear skepticism and dissatisfaction with the analysis underlying the recommendation.

Similarly, at the December 2nd meeting, City Council member Greg Schmid took a careful, skeptical look at the Staff report on traffic "Traffic numbers prompt council head-scratching" (Web link) (with supporting comments from Burt and Holman).

At least one Commissioner (Martinez at 1:45:40) mentioned the importance of accurately reporting public input. This may have been an acknowledgement of a speaker's point that the Staff presentation presented an idea (the "Chimalus Greenbelt", from Part 1) in a purely positive light, when it was in fact controversial. It may also have been triggered by differences between what was in the main body of the Staff report and the collection of comments from the public outreach sessions in Attachment A.
Note: Not that long ago, it was typically for Staff reports to contain only heavily filtered public input that supported the Staff recommendation.

Several of the Commissioners recognized that the safety improvements that could be made were limited, and were starting to ask the policy question of whether this should be officially designated a Bike Boulevard. However, this went nowhere because of misconceptions created by deficiencies in the Staff report (discussed in Part 2). For example, one Commissioner (Michael at 2:15:40) said the proposal was a significant improvement, but not safe (he had biked to the route) and later worried that it would create "an illusion of safety" (> 2:19).

So potential commenters, what do you think are the actions that individual Council members and Commissioners could undertake to encourage meaningful public input?


1. To see for yourself parts or all of this item of the PTC meeting (not that I recommend it), see the archived Webcast (Web link) with this agenda item starting at minute 55 and lasting almost 100 minutes. Public comments (6) begin at 1:14:45. The Commissioners comments begin at 1:31.

The Guidelines (Web link) for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.


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