Meeting Notes – We the People on February 6th

We the People:
How to Make More Voices Heard

A Community Discussion on Increasing Public Participation
in Planning in 2021 and Beyond

Saturday, February 6, 2021
10:00 AM to 12:00 noon via Zoom

Meeting Notes

Host:
Prof. Julianna Delgado: jdelgado@cpp.edu
President, Southern California Planning Congress

Moderator:
Brian Biery: brian@brianbiery.com

Scribe:
Dasni Ahangama: dahangama@cpp.edu

Panelists:
The Honorable Felicia Williams: fwilliams@cityofpasadena.net
Nina R. Chomsky, Esq.: nrchomsky@aol.com
Rick Cole: venturacole@yahoo.com
Michael Dieden: mdieden@challc.com

Part I. What are the barriers to participation? Think about the structural, psychological, or political ones. Provide concrete examples when possible.

  • Residents do not have enough time or have other obligations that prevent them from attending community meetings. The average person does not love advocacy and it requires a huge commitment of time and energy to advocate for one’s neighborhood.

  • Community members are reactive and don’t participate unless there is a perceived threat. The greater the personal threat to life, liberty, or property the greater the likelihood that someone will get involved.

  • There is a generally perceived lack of transparency on the City’s part and limited opportunities to provide input.

  • There is a lack of adequate communication by government about the process, meetings, times for input, etc. There is a need to inspire, to provide information and share knowledge for the community to understand complex issues.

  • Community members feel intimidated providing comments to the City Council.

  • Cities have lost their souls with increased urbanization. Development is lacking public participation.
    • Example: Pioneer Square, San Dimas
    • Community members became activists, putting up signs to stop a hotel development and then proposing an alternative, Pioneer Square. They had a podcast and community newspaper to mobilize around the issue.

  • Planners need to do more and be better planners. Planners need to find out from the community what they would like in their City, not dictate to them.
    • Planners need to make engagement relatable to the public.
    • Example: The proposed development at Los Robles and Villa in Pasadena had little opportunity for input from the public.
    • There is a feeling that speculative development hampers equal access to decision-makers; the issue of profit motive pits neighbors against developers.

  • COVID-19 has changed the dynamic of public participation.
    • In Pasadena, there is no open comment time, only comments on items on the agenda that are submitted on line then read out loud at the meeting.
    • On Zoom, if public meetings are held as a webinar then no one can see who else is attending. This stifles participation and a sense of community.

  • The City favors the few and needs to open the house up to other voices.
    • The “usual suspects” are the ones who continually present their ideas
    • Comments from other speakers get “lost” or are not read.
    • The City needs to be up front and avoid fights.

  • The City does not engage with marginalized and diverse members of the community.
    • People of color are often underrepresented in the process.
    • Need to resolve: “How do we engage people of color who have historically been left out of the city’s decision-making process?”

  • All voices are not heard and valued. Details are important to people who make the effort to participate but these are often not provided.

  • There is a general distrust of government.
    • Community members feel they do not have sway at the end of Public Comments, that decisions are largely dropped because of economic concerns, not public concerns.
    • Residents feel that elected officials have already made up their minds.
    • The City twists adopted plans beyond recognition to fit the project.
    • Campaign contributions are a large factor in how certain City Council members vote and names of contributors should be disclosed.
    • Residents should not have to sue to get the City to listen to them.
    • Community members feel challenged having to battle lobbyists and lawyers who are behind the scenes.

  • Community members are threatened about rising land values that impact surrounding rent prices, and this makes them feel powerless.

  • The City needs to manage expectations. Planners need to be up front about what can and cannot be done, especially with respect to private property.

Part II. From your experience, what are best practices or ways to improve participation? Please give concrete examples.

  • The City needs to manage expectations. Residents expect the government to do certain things that they cannot do. The City can only facilitate changes.
    • Commissions need to be utilized to assist with participation. They should move towards vetting and facilitation.
    • City staff should form community-based core groups to have more effective community participation during the whole planning and entitlement process.
    • Implementation seems to be overlooked. The City team must involve not just the planner but those who would carry out the project.
    • Community members should demand a relationship with the developer.
    • Community members should be encouraged to meet with private developers to control their frame of mind and increase their understanding of community needs, which may streamline the development process and keep their costs down.

  • People generally do not respond to issues unless (1) they know about it and (2) they feel they will be losing something or the change will be adverse. Inform them.
    • Each councilmember should alert their constituency with the heading, “Why this project is important to you.”
    • The councilmember’s alerts should link the city’s community outreach events through both email and, especially, text messaging.

  • There should be multiple access points for sharing information (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, etc.). The City should expand its outreach and gathering of input.
    • Use a model similar to James Rojas’ to increase interactive engagement.
    • Some residents lack internet access so cannot attend Zoom meetings or consult a city’s website. Information that used to be displayed at parks or libraries is not reaching people because those locations are not open now.
    • Use the media outlets. The City should work with them to distribute accurate information and encourage people to participate.
    • The City should provide a tool to submit comments on their general web page.
    • The City’s website should be easy to navigate. It is too difficult to find information or know when an item will be heard before the Council or Commissions.
    • Provide adaptive radio. People like human scale, to engage with people nearby.
    • Provide a newsletter from the City and Schools with practical information, i.e. “The Cone Zone” (information about local street improvements), and “Your Voice at City Hall” (information about the City’s current and upcoming issues).
    • Provide paper and electronic comment cards.

  • Change local government. Rethink and discuss the purpose of local government.
    • Who is public participation aimed at? What and how much can government do?
    • What are the obligations of elected officials to their constituents?
    • Work with people who are behind the scenes that have influence, such as community leaders or advocates.
    • Consider how to enforce adopted plans fairly and who should enforce them.
    • Hold more charrettes.
      • However, they can be a very exclusive model, solely for people who have the luxury of time. Lower income folks are working 2-4 jobs to afford housing and trying to care for their kids and more.
      • Develop multiple charrettes instead to include a wide spectrum of community members and consider their needs and availability.
    • Lobbyists have to be registered. Meetings need to be held publicly.

  • Make government more transparent.
    • The City should be up-front about realistic expectations and provide alternatives.
    • Educate and inspire engaged citizenship.
      • Provide educational opportunities for the public to learn about the planning and public policy development processes.
      • Provide a speakers series or bureau as a way of educating the public (as a reference or resource tool).
      • Work with the schools to instill a culture of civic engagement from the start.
    • Welcome community members at the door.
    • Value participant comments and make it easy to contact City staff.
    • Make City online permit sites easy for the public at large to use.

  • Reduce language barriers
    • Provide live, real-time translation.
    • Advertise meetings at athletic and other community events.
    • Provide flyers in multiple languages.
    • Translate all documents under consideration into multiple languages.

  • Consider the manner of communicating with the general public and adjust it.
    • Reduce the culture of ‘professionalization.’
      • Professional standards and practices are great but jargon and processes may be hard for non-professionals to understand. Professionals with knowledge and ‘skin in the game’ should make time to attend public meetings, answer questions, and help the public understand the process and issues.
      • City staff should realize that for non-professionals, attending a meeting is just another thing on a to-do list. Appreciate their participation and listen to them.
      • Learn from other fields. What are best practices of public intellectuals and community organizers to increase participation?
    • Control input from non-public participants; balance all participants through education.
      • There should be an open, transparent and recurring mechanism that allows for non-planning leaders to understand and know the entire arch of a planning process.
    • Hold different or additional meetings for a more technical audience.

  • Increase civic awareness in the younger generations.
    • Reduce the lack of motivation or concern for what is not immediately affecting them.
    • Educate them on how projects impact their future and subsequent generations.
    • Find ways for them to participate in local government.

  • Use existing institutions to increase community involvement in marginalized and underrepresented communities.
    • Example: Co-host with a church or other trusted institutions in the community.
    • Hold ‘creative’ City Council and other meetings.
      • Meet at parks, community centers, and community based institutions.
      • Do not hold community meetings just at City Hall. It often feels too professional, intimidating, and formal for some to attend. Go to where the people already are. Let people hear what their neighbors have to say before talking to a councilmember or city staff.
    • Assist with outreach using “interactive retail.”
      • Have a presence at farmers markets, church and school carnivals, local stores, and community events, etc.
      • Example: Pre-COVID, Pasadena’s Northwest Commission would have a booth during Black History and other city events. People attending would be surveyed about issues in their neighborhood.
    • Hold educational workshops regularly with other institutions.

  • Hold in-person meetings that facilitate participation. Provide transportation, daycare, translations, and food for city, district, or neighborhood meetings. Pick comfortable, appropriate locations. Allow time for people to mingle and talk to each other.

  • For Zoom meetings and events, hold them at a convenient time (avoid meal times, etc.). Open the ‘Chat’ for discussion and allow people to see each other.

  • Provide additional, separate City-held Zoom meetings solely to receive public input and discourse.

  • Increase diversity among government positions.

  • Hire community outreach and engagement staff and reach out to folks who do not normally participate.

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Meeting Notes – We the People on February 6th

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