Many of us have likely sat through at least a few meetings in our lives where we wondered about the purpose, how much longer it could possibly go, or whether any actual tangible outcomes would be derived.
As a City Council candidate, I recognize that if elected, in large part I will spend many days and hours in meetings and therefore I have been thinking a lot about meeting efficiency, quality, and information accessibility. In preparing myself to take on this job, I have taken every opportunity to attend relevant meetings- from city council to advisory committees.
This allows me to not only hit the ground running with the most pertinent concerns of the moment but of equal importance it allows me to see first-hand the level of citizen engagement and satisfaction, or lack thereof, derived by these meetings.
If elected, one driving concern I have is how our city can engage more folks in the civic process. What role can I play in getting more people to join in?
The advisory committees are where a great deal of legwork is done and these meetings are open to the public. These committees save the council substantial time by working with staff to develop recommendations for the council, allowing council meetings to be more efficient and productive. These meetings also provide the opportunity to hone in on a particular need and they allow city council members to hear perspectives outside of city government.
What I have noted at many of these public meetings is low attendance or a lack of community input. Port Angeles is indeed not alone in this problem. The National Research Center (NRC), a firm that conducts citizen surveys for more than 200 communities, reported in 2014 that 81% of Americans surveyed had not contacted their local elected officials over a 12-month period, and only about a quarter reported attending a public meeting.
I appreciate where our city has taken strides to remedy this lack of engagement. For example the City Council recently passed a new ordinance for advisory committees, moving their meetings to council chambers and setting new rules to ensure ample time for public comment. This provides an important opportunity for the community to share their thoughts and ideas at the advisory council level.
For those who are concerned about the forward movement of our city there is much to be gleaned from attending these committee meetings or connecting with our public employees.
In the past 10 days, I attended the Utility Advisory Committee and connected with Steve Burke, Director of William Shore Pool.
At the Utility Advisory Committee meeting, I had the opportunity to learn about the updates to the solid waste rates that have been recommended by the finance and public works department. Observing this discussion and decision making process helped me build a greater trust in the diligent work on the part of city officials to ensure residents of Port Angeles are not paying more than necessary for services that we need and want.
In meeting with Steve Burke, I was able to learn more about the pool, including their plans for expansion. These improvements will be a welcome addition to our community and add an additional rainy day option for families looking for indoor activities. After talking with Steve I was enthused about the potential of serving on this board. As a competitive swimmer, growing up I spent a lot of time at pools around the state and would love to see our pool continue to expand as a healthy place for families and individuals of all ages to spend their time.
The pool board has done a great job of creatively seeking out community feedback on their expansion project. The online survey and incentives to complete it were a great example of garnering public input outside of the normal echo chambers. I think our City Council can do better a better job of giving the community the opportunity to be heard and this is a great example of how that can be done.
Not everyone can attend council and community meetings to know what is going on. What steps can the council take for better outward communication? All of the minutes from city council and advisory meetings are available online but what is needed to make this information both more digestible and more central to where our community members seek out their news and information?
Some cities across the country have chosen to create policy and ordinances to strengthen public participation, have updated their codes to reflect the needs of 21st century communication, require that engagement metrics be incorporated into their reporting, or have centered their strategic planning goals around increased engagement. The Community Newsletters included in the utility bills are a great first step – and I would love to see them shared in other ways as well.
Cities have jumped on board with a variety of methods, some are using online open town halls, live streaming of meetings, texting campaigns, or training programs for employees to learn engagement skills, and the list goes on. There are many excellent models out there of policy options to strengthen public participation. If elected I would like to look at our local policy and laws regarding communication so that we can build a more connected relationship with community members and strengthen their capacity to take part in public decision making.
Improving communication between the city council, the advisory committees, and the community would go a long way to improve transparency and trust in city government and answer people’s questions about projects, rates, etc. before misinformation is spread or discord is created between the community and the council.
If the council and staff solicit and implement the feedback they receive from the community then a key step is making sure that the community knows how it was used. If we can connect those two dots we will more effectively serve those we are elected to represent.