City wants to improve outreach

City wants to improve outreach

Michele Ellson
Denise De Anda

Heather Rider learned of the city’s plans to initiate a streetscape project on Park Street the week before it began, in the form of a flyer than was handed to her and other Park Street business owners. The flyer listed all the things that were to be added by the project – parking kiosks, bike racks – but said nothing about the city’s plans to cut down a block’s worth of trees, said Rider, who owns Monkey Bars, a children’s clothing store on Park.

“I feel like, had we known – it just takes a couple of people to say, ‘This is not a good idea,’” said Rider, who emerged as a vocal opponent of the city’s decision to remove the trees.

In order to prevent a similar scenario from occurring again, city leaders are drafting a policy that they hope will help them to better communicate with residents and business owners about the city’s plans, before city leaders make a decision and act. One workshop has already been held, and a second will be held at 10 a.m. in the teen room at the Alameda Boys & Girls Club, 1900 Third Avenue.

A draft policy is set to be presented at Saturday’s workshop, and a final policy will be considered by the council on April 17. The council will also consider changes to its boards and commissions that could mean fewer of them and less meetings.

“The public participation policy arose out of the need to communicate with the community on a variety of city activities that was crystallized around the cutting of the trees on Park Street, as part of the streetscape plan from 2005. With the changing ways in which people get information about the community, it was important to get feedback through these workshops,” said Councilwoman Lena Tam, a driving force behind the policy.

Suggestions gathered so far include addressing a language barrier for those who don’t speak English, including a public feedback section in city staff reports, creating an online participation space and summarizing meetings on the city’s website and public access television channel.

Opinions about how the city can best inform local residents about pending decisions are plentiful, though some met the question with little more than a blank stare.

Some of those interviewed suggested technological solutions, including e-mail newsletters and Facebook and Twitter feeds, while others said posting the information in real-world places, including in newspapers and outside coffee shops, could prove effective.

Michael Swartz said he’d like to see the city offer more information on the social networking site Twitter. “This is how I get most, if not the majority, of my news,” he said.

Nancy Walker suggested a mix of public forums and online communication through Facebook, Twitter and local news websites and blogs.

“It seems like public forums in person are only for those who have the time to get out of the house at night and that leaves out a lot of the population,” Walker said. “A combination of both might be the solution for the non-tech oriented and the tech oriented.”

Noureddine Manser said he gets most of his information from his local mosque, whose leaders discuss local issues with them and then offer their opinions to City Hall.

Denise De Anda suggested posting information outside coffee shops, at the Alameda Theatre & Cineplex, and in other places where people might have the time and energy to consider it.

“They see things they don’t normally see when they’re rushing off to work,” De Anda said.

In response to suggestions that they do more to engage families in decisions they’re making, school district officials have started making automated phone calls to families whose children are enrolled in Alameda schools about upcoming meetings.

Assistant Superintendent Sean McPhetridge said the district called more than 6,600 families – 92 percent of those with children enrolled in the district – to let them know about a workshop district leaders held Tuesday to talk about potential changes to high school graduation requirements.

“Our goal is to engage and involve as many students and their families as possible in these policy deliberations on graduation requirements,” McPhetridge said.

The district has also used the technique to contact families about an opportunity to serve on a committee that will select potential names for a new magnet school at Washington Elementary. And McPhetridge said the technique brought new voices into the district’s policy conversation.

“People thanked us for the call at the end of the meeting,” said McPhetridge, who added the district plans to continue making the calls as it works on graduation requirements.

Rider, who listed a host of problems she and other business owners will suffer due to the loss of the trees, said she thinks the city relied on the Park Street Business Association, which represents Park Street business owners, to inform them of the pending tree removals, and she said that “basically didn’t happen.” And she accused the association’s leadership of giving the city bad information regarding business owners’ feelings about the trees.

But she said she thinks city leaders, who came and talked to her after the uproar over the tree removals was in full swing, are doing the best they can.

“When something catastrophic like this happens, everyone lashes out at the mayor. They don’t know who’s responsible,” Rider said. “If anything, it’s a learning lesson for them. They can’t make decisions based on no input, or wrong input.”