Claremont Insider: Are They Listening?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Are They Listening?

One of our complaints about how things have traditionally worked in Official Claremont is the persistent unwillingness on the part of city councils, commissions, committees, and staff to take the time to really listen to citizens concerns about various issues.

The City would start out with a preconceived idea about how a given project should go, then staff would proceed to write up a report to support it. City Attorney Sonia Carvahlo would then backstop the process by making sure all legal bases were covered. But the outcomes had been determined long before any public discussion ever occurred.

For years, you'd go to a public meeting on an issue, speak up about some obvious oversight or omission that staff and the commissions or council had failed to account for, and you'd get nothing blank stares, or, worse, you'd be treated to a round of eye-rolling and sighs. It was like trying to tell the Titanic's captain his ship might be sinkable after all. You'd just have to sit and watch the inevitable play out knowing it was all very preventable. We've learned the hard way that staying the course only makes sense when one's path is iceberg-free.

We'd like to think that the recent Claremont municipal election signaled a change, but it's extremely difficult to alter a ruling culture. It means convincing people that there are better ways of doing things, and most people by nature are conservative in the non-political sense. We just don't like to abandon what's worked in the past, even it no longer functions well. image
Today's Claremont Courier reports on Wednesday's lecture at Bridges Auditorium by Obama for America campaign manager David Plouffe (picture at right), and it seemed clear that one of the things the Obama campaign did was to tap into new technologies and combine them with grassroots organizing efforts. The Courier article said:
The unconventional use of technology in the 2008 campaign is considered one of its most valuable innovations. “Technology was married to the grassroots approach,” Mr. Plouffe said. New media like the Internet, email, and cell phone was heavily used to move the message. “Huge numbers of people gathered online to build groups and widen the circle,” Mr. Plouffe explained.

Emails were particularly successful because people could incorporate the information in their conversations with friends and relatives. “This is not the regular way of doing things,” Mr. Plouffe admitted, “but people don’t trust the media and they don’t trust the government; they trust the conversations they have with their neighbors down the street.”

Mr. Plouffe concluded the campaign’s biggest asset was the actual performance of the candidate. He addressed Mr. Obama’s relative lack of experience by saying that it was one of his advantages. Having spent less time in Washington, Mr. Obama was less used to the “conventional practices” established there.

It may be that for a change our own city council was actually trying to learn some lessons from Plouffe. We hear there were several councilmembers in the audience to hear Plouffe, and they may have finally come around to the idea that they need to be more receptive to the public than past councils.

We seem to be seeing evidence of that thinking. At Tuesday night's new mayor Corey Calaycay was much freer with public comment than some past mayors. For a long time, Claremont had a four-minute time limit for speakers, and a red light would blink when your time was up. Councilmmber Peter Yao retired the clock when he was mayor, but Ellen Taylor, who is no longer on the council, brought it back. Calaycay re-retired the public comment clock Tuesday.

Our recent town leaders seemed to think that democracy requires orderliness and that all issues can be fitted into an arbitrarily set four-minute period. The council, of course, has unlimited time to talk about things, so there wasn't much balance in the so-called dialogue. It was really a parent-child relationship, with the public being the two-year-old that needed to be humored.

But, as we all know, some issues take longer than four minutes to discuss, some less, and there's nothing more irritating than having someone like former Mayor Taylor interrupting you to tell you you're finished as soon the red light blinks. In any event, the clock is gone for now, and City Hall is still standing. None of the public speakers took advantage of the clock's absence to filibuster, and the meeting was quite orderly. Indeed, one could argue that treating the public as an equal participant diffuses anger and resentment.

In another sign the council may be listening, at Tuesday night's meeting they considered complaints from residents along Adirondack Lane near the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park. The residents were concerned about parking from hikers spilling over onto their streets and wanted to have parking permits required for their neighborhood. The council approved the measure and even extended it to cover weekdays, as some residents had requested. The Daily Bulletin reported on the parking discussion:
Residents said the area was packed with cars primarily visiting the Wilderness Park which threatened the safety of everyone, particularly children.

"We feel like we're on lockdown," said resident Lisa Friedman.

Adirondack Lane resident Avi Hershkovitz, one of a number of residents that spoke before the council this week, was in favor of the ordinance if it was for every day.

The original ordinance was only for weekends and federal holidays.

Councilwoman Linda Elderkin said she felt the ordinance should be for every day and introduced a motion supporting it.
So, we find Elderkin's receptiveness encouraging, and, to be fair, she has been one of the more reasonable councilmembers since she was elected. Maybe that portends good things to come.