CityWatch, Jan 3, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 1
RETHINKING LA - Public meetings are the bane of a community activist’s life, a necessary evil that demands attention and consumes incredible amounts of time, all while offering only the slimmest of hope that a moment of comment will change the course of history or at least impact the outcome of a vote.
In looking back over the past year and setting resolutions for the future, I resolve to spend less time in meetings and more time on other activities that move issues forward, that hold public officials accountable, and that engage the public in working together to improve our communities.
Most importantly, I intend to apply the “oversight and accountability” standard to the meetings that are conducted by the people who run this city.
As the City of Los Angeles wallows through the ongoing financial drought that has eviscerated departments and prompted budget cuts that squeeze department heads to cry for supplies and staffing, one of the most unregulated areas of operation is the meeting, the squandering of staffing in gatherings that are heavy on headcount and light on significance or impact.
A recent City Council meeting drew a full house, a standing room only crowd of members of the public, all eager to petition their government, to address the issues, to weigh in on the agenda items to be considered that day.
I saw a high-ranking member of the LA Police Department and greeted him, saying “Hey, welcome back! How was your vacation?” He glumly informed me that he was still on vacation, but was called in to represent the LAPD during a City Council resolution. He was not alone but was surrounded by a full contingent of LAPD brass.
Not to be outdone was the presence of LA’s Fire Department, represented by a small cluster of high-ranking officials in full uniform, buttons polished and gleaming, all standing by for hours on the slim chance that their presence would add anything significant to a process that was short of controversy and long on ceremony.
A reasonably concerned community activist could embark on the honorable road to poverty simply by engaging in the process and participating in the public comment charade. After all, who isn’t concerned with issues related to the LAPD and the LAFD?
Add to the public safety dialogue at City Hall a few CERT meetings, some CPAB meetings, a few neighborhood watch meetings, and the schedule is starting to fill up.
At some point, it becomes obvious that public safety is related to planning and land use issues and it becomes necessary to engage in the Community Plan journey, the local Planning Commission activities, the Neighborhood Council’s PLUM committee, and specific committees and authorities related to hills, valleys, rivers, parks, and anything with a view.
Another epiphany occurs and the connection between land use and transportation rears its well-funded head and Metro meetings appear on the calendar, surrounded by Measure R project meetings, Walkability audits, Ridability audits, Livability audits, and hearings over permit parking, apron parking, and metered parking.
Along the way, LA’s infrastructure sends a reminder that it would like some attention or it will simply collapse from loneliness, setting in motion a series of meetings with the Department of Water & Power, the Bureaus of Street Services, Sanitation, Engineering, and the Department of Transportation.
All this work is enough to drive even the most dedicated activist in search of diversion but a visit to a park or library simply sets in play another round of “Attend this meeting if you care about the future of...” meetings that simply suck the energy out of the most committed supporters.
Eventually, the accidental activist realizes that the battle to improve the quality of life and ensure the delivery of city services demands the full support of the respective elected officials, setting play another byzantine journey in search of representation.
It’s been my experience that the average person on the street is hard pressed to identify their City Council district, let alone their State Senator or Representative, a fact that is further complicated by the current redistricting process that has many communities in flux.
One would think that by now there would be a simpler process for engaging our elected officials in the process of serving their constituents, one that doesn’t require a trip to Sacramento, to a district office, to City Hall or to the County Hall of Administration.
Granted, there is something powerful about speaking in public but it’s also fairly late in the game to wait for public comment. One would think that 2012 would be a reasonable time for our elected officials to implement the digital tools that would allow the public to participate in the process without having to trade a half-day of personal time for 60 seconds of public comment.
San Francisco uses a smart phone application called SFGov as a tool for “making government more responsive and City services easier to access” according to Mayor Lee.
Boston uses “Citizens Connect” as a tool for engaging the public while other cities opt for a service called Government Outreach [[http://www.govoutreach.com/productscrmmobile.htm ]] that allows community members to get information, submit requests, send geo-tagged photos, and follow up on requests.
Councilmembers Garcetti and Krekorian have both demonstrated a commitment to utilizing social media tools in connecting with their constituents but their success must be balanced by the overall failings of the city as a whole to keep up with the times, with the technology, and with the demands that fall on the public.
Within the city family, the LAFD’s Brian Humphrey has been recognized for his mastery of social media as a mechanism for keeping the public informed, regardless of the platform they favor but again, his success is tempered by the LAPD’s Public Information Office which is still staffed by people who giggle when they say “twitter” out loud.
It’s 2012 and my first resolution is to spend less time in meetings, sitting idly and hoping that my 60 seconds of public comment will be meaningful. Instead I resolve to engage more, to participate with increased fervor, and to insist that the people who manage the process do so on a platform of modern tools and techniques.
Most importantly, I will work to ensure that the voice of the people count for something, that feedback is collected and tabulated, and that it amount to more than simple background noise as City Hall consumes staff time in obligatory meetings that maintain the status quo.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net.)