Community engagement pitch hits dead end: Proposal to improve communication goes nowhere

A bid by two Los Altos city councilwomen to examine the city’s community engagement efforts ended without a vote Sept. 17 after their council colleagues deemed it too broad.

Councilwomen Jeannie Bruins and Jan Pepper sought the council’s approval at a special meeting last week to form an ad hoc task force that would examine the city’s current community engagement endeavors, review best practices in other cities and identify possible areas of improvement.

According to a staff report, Bruins and Pepper proposed forming a committee of residents, staff members and themselves, citing residents’ concerns about a lack of two-way communication on certain issues voiced during their 2012 election campaigns. Bruins and Pepper added that the effort would also fulfill a 2013 council priority to “encourage and employ effective community engagement practices.”

“People want to know up front, ‘What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? Don’t ask me about whether I want a traffic light – let’s agree first on the problem we’re trying to solve,’” Bruins said, explaining the motivation behind the effort.

The remainder of the council expressed doubts about which problem Bruins and Pepper were attempting to solve.

Councilwoman Megan Satterlee said she couldn’t support voting to form a task force “at this point” because the scope of the project was too broad, suggesting instead a more narrowed focus on a specific issue, such as examining ways to engage the public on traffic issues.

“I think just a generic call, ‘Hey, everyone, let’s talk about public engagement’ – really, I’m struggling as to what that’s going to get us,” she said.

Satterlee also rebuffed the assertion that a lack of effective community engagement was a central issue during the 2012 election campaign.

“I did go through (the 2012) campaign and this was not something that I heard a lot,” she said. “So if there is a lot of resident concern about the engagement process, I have not heard it.”

Councilwoman Val Carpenter said the issue appeared to lack public interest, noting that she received no emails on the topic. She also pointed to a lack of public speakers at the meeting. Carpenter suggested instead calling a study session on the matter, “so the entire council, the mayor and myself, can hear from those who have expressed concerns.”

Pepper countered that the lack of public speakers and emails on the issue were proof that the city should examine community engagement practices in the first place.

“The methods we’re using now are not reaching the people who might be interested, which is maybe why there isn’t anyone here to talk about this with us tonight,” she said.

Pepper also expressed frustration at her colleagues’ resistance to examining the issue from a broader perspective.

“Part of community engagement is getting more people in our community involved – utilizing the talents and ideas that they have,” she said. “Basically what I’m hearing back from my fellow councilmembers is that we don’t want to do that. We want to just kind of keep doing the same thing we’re doing. I don’t know – are we afraid to see what the community has to say?”

Without the necessary votes to move forward, Bruins told the council that she was “comfortable taking no action” on the item so that she and Pepper could “noodle on this a little bit more.”

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