Each night at about 7 p.m., my spouse and I start putting our two kids to bed. The agenda is as follows: Changing into pajamas and brushing teeth, five to fifteen minutes of television, reading two or three stories, a final trip to the bathroom, singing three songs, saying goodnight... and maybe coming in for "one last thing"... or maybe one more bathroom trip... sometimes more than one time.
It can be a calming transition at the end of the day. It can be a battle of wills. Oftentimes it's both. And like most everything about raising kids, it's unpredictable and almost certainly to change.
I share this to draw a contrast: the schedule for Alameda City Council meetings is predictable and unlikely to ever change. Per Alameda Municipal Code:
“The regular meetings of the City Council shall be held in the designated location of the City Hall at 7:00 p.m. in the calendar year as fixed by resolution in December of the preceding year.”
—AMC Section 2-1.1
And so, at the first meeting on December 20 of this newly seated City Council, their first and only order of business was to adopt a calendar for their meetings in 2023. All five members voted to adopt the following resolution:
Weeknights at 7 p.m. is also the most common time for other Alameda city boards and commissions to hold their meetings. The timing is similar for the Alameda Unified School District's School Board.
So at least for me, it's a choice: participate in local public meetings or put my kids to bed before seeing if the meeting is still running after they are settled and asleep. I'm not complaining — it's an easy choice to make.
Still, I'm sure I'm not alone in finding Tuesdays at 7 p.m. to be a difficult time to participate in a public meeting.
Should we take a poll to revise Alameda Municipal Code Section 2-1.1? Send out a Doodle to all 80,000-odd residents of Alameda? Also check in with all the business owners, the employees, the property owners, the visitors, and everyone else who has a stake in this place? Maybe we could find a time that works for everyone!
Well, or more likely we'd find that everyone has different schedules, different lives, different priorities... In trying to answer the question of when to schedule a regular standing synchronous public meeting, we'd likely end up saying exactly what the fellow in a New Yorker cartoon says: "How about never—is never good for you?"
Handling calendar conflicts
Perhaps we can't necessarily find a better day and time for Alameda City Council meetings — but we should be mindful of who the current schedule prioritizes and who it excludes.
Councilmember Tony Daysog recently provided an example of how not to do it:
More means of participation
Since it's often a zero-sum question to ask when to schedule meetings, let's instead ask more questions about how to engage more residents and other stakeholders throughout decision-making processes. It doesn't all have to happen in one single place at one single time.
Remote: The addition of Zoom for remote participation is already one way to expand access. It's important that City Council retain this option, after the emergency ordinances expire. It's still synchronous and requires everyone to be available at the same time, but it removes the need to put on presentable clothes, trek to Alameda City Hall, and commit to attending an entire meeting. For people who just want to attend for a single agenda item, the remote option allows them to half-listen while doing other tasks at home and then pay full attention to the meeting when their agenda item is finally heard (or rescheduled, as happens all too often when earlier agenda items go long). The remote option is also important for people with COVID concerns or challenges to feel safe to participate, as well as to serve.
Extended planning processes: The best policies, action plans, or projects are rarely crafted and decided upon in one single evening. Instead they are built up incrementally by staff, sometimes involve surveys and open houses, are heard by relevant boards and commissions of appointed volunteer members, and then heard at one or more City Council meeting. For example, Alameda's Active Transportation Plan involved three rounds of public engagement — here is a summary of just the final round:
The City sought and received input on the Draft [Active Transportation] Plan between October 3-23, 2022 in the following ways during this outreach effort (which was the last of three major public engagement periods:
- 14 public events and meetings + 7 presentations/tabling for local organizations
- 71,860 emails delivered via 15 mailing lists
- 49% median open rate for mailings to transportation lists
- 327 responses to the survey/comment form
- 17 days on City homepage “call to action” headline
- 6 news article inclusions and 1 letter to the editor
With so many ways for stakeholders to participate — some synchronous, some asynchronous; some requiring only a few minutes, others involving more of a time commitment — there's much less riding on the question of who can attend a single synchronous City Council to listen and to make a public comment.
Targeted outreach: When city staff proposed replacing the free Loop Shuttle (which provided infrequent service on a limited number of days), they reached out in advance to the people most affected: riders of the shuttle, as well as users of the other alternatives transportation options proposed as the replacement to the shuttle (such as a free pass for seniors and people with disabilites to ride AC Transit).
Statistically significant surveys: One of the most interesting ways in which Alameda performed public outreach for the Active Transportation Plan was by hiring a market research firm to perform a survey. In contrast with most other means of public engagement that are "opt in" by those who already care enough about a topic to participate, this was a random sample "reaching out" to residents:
For the full set of slides that summarize the results of this survey, see Appendix B of the Active Transporation Plan.
Surveys with random sampling and paying of participants are normal way that market research is conducted in the private sector. It's a useful way to identify broad trends, preferences, and needs — patterns that are statistically significant. For the public sector, it provides a useful contrast with other means of public engagement, which are much finer-grained and driven by the specifics of who cares enough to attend synchronous meetings. We don't need to make every single public decision with the lure of an Amazon gift card — but Alameda benefits from these survey methods being in the "toolkit" of methods of public engagement.
It ain't over till it's over
But here's the catch: All of this public engagement through wide-ranging, asynchronous, and iterative means is for naught if it isn't properly considered by the five elected members of City Council when they make votes on projects, plans, and policies.
Ideally, the full public engagement process leading up to a vote should be weighted alongside the live public comment at that meeting. Weighted, as in the statistical sense, with people making synchronous/live public comments given roughly similar consideration to people who provided their input previously through asynchronous means.
However, when watching City Council meetings, I am too often frustrated to see:
- Opponents to projects/policies/plans making the same negative public comments at the final City Council meeting that they made at previous stages of the public engagement process. While those with positive views already provided their positive input a single time, those who object continue to do so repeatedly at every possible venue. ("It ain't over till it's over," as Yogi Berra said.)
- Councilmembers seeking to appease those loud, last-minute objectors by verbally revising projects/policies/plans at a late-stage hearing. When done well, these changes may represent useful and valid compromises. However, last-minute off-the-cuff changes are also often slapdash. There can be unintended consequences, none the least the fact that the broader range of stakeholders will have less faith in the process if their input in earlier stages is ignored in the final stages.
This gets back to the framing for Alameda politics with which I started this blog: engaging with change vs. opposing any and all change. What I am identifying as problems with finding times and means for more people to be involved are seen differently by some others of the rectionary mindset.
Is limiting full public participation to "the designated location of the City Hall at 7:00 p.m." (to again quote Alameda Municipal Code Section 2-1.1) a bug or a feature?