Council streamlines commissions, okays public engagement policy

Council streamlines commissions, okays public engagement policy

Michele Ellson

Alameda’s City Council has signed off on a plan designed to make local government more accessible and to better engage residents in the city’s decision-making efforts.

The council also agreed to reduce and consolidate its boards and commissions, though council members held off on some of the changes under consideration.

Recounting recent clashes over a proposed land swap and the city’s surprise removal of Park Street trees, Deputy City Manager Alex Nguyen told the council they’d be best off engaging residents earlier in the decision-making process – a move he said would build community and reduce the distrust of local government some citizens have expressed in the past.

“When you have an engaged public, it makes for better and easier decisions here at City Hall,” Nguyen said Tuesday.

Residents who participated in two public workshops the city held to gather input for the policy said that those who get involved in local issues want to be sure they have been heard by policymakers. And they listed a host of ways the city could better communicate its efforts, which ranged from improved outreach across different media platforms to addressing language barriers to involvement.

The policy okayed by the council Tuesday listed eight principles for engaging the public; staff said they would also provide new informational tools including a rundown of public input in staff reports on items the council is considering and meeting summaries, which would be provided online.

A resident who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, Carol Gottstein, also suggested the city begin listing the names of city councilmember’s and boards and commissions on agendas so those who attend the meetings know who’s on those bodies. And Councilwoman Lena Tam suggested the city’s agendas list its business in plain English, saying that residents who read that the city was considering a streetscape project on Park Street, for example, might not have understood the project included cutting down trees.

The policy comes in the wake of criticism over what some felt was poor communication over the Park Street trees and a lack of public input on a tough smoking ordinance that went into effect this year. But it also follows the implementation of new rules designed to shorten meetings, make it easier for the public to comment and boost access to public documents.

The council also agreed to streamline and consolidate its 17 boards and commissions, which provide the city input on everything from golf to public art. Council members voted to eliminate the city’s Film Commission, consolidate its pension and civil service boards, leave its Public Art Commission on hiatus and reduce the membership of its youth, golf and economic development commissions.

City staff will also work to refine the purpose and duties of the remaining boards and commissions, some of which are lacking one or the other, and to train members about their purpose, duties and responsibilities.

Councilwoman Beverly Johnson said she wanted the membership for the Youth Commission to remain at nine in order to provide an opportunity for youth to have input in civic affairs. But Assistant City Manager Lisa Goldman said city staffers had a tough time getting youths to the meetings, and that the city often has to drive youths to and from meetings so they could attend.

Nguyen said the council and the city’s boards and commissions held 198 scheduled, noticed meetings during the 260 business days of 2011, while city staff held an additional 200 community meetings last year.

The council declined to act on proposals to reduce the membership of the city’s Recreation and Park Commission and to allow council members to nominate new commission members if the mayor fails to do so for 60 days after a position becomes vacant, though Tam said she only wished to wait for formal input from the commission on the reduction in membership.

Recreation and Park Commissioner Bill Delaney said he and his fellow commissioners would like to see the commission’s numbers reduced from seven to five because the commission has had difficulty getting enough members to attend meetings to make decisions. Councilman Doug deHaan said he thinks commission members should be aware they have a responsibility to show up for meetings.

In other business, city staff withdrew a list prioritizing city transportation projects so that they could gather more input through the Transportation Commission and Planning Board. Once approved, the list will be used as city staffers apply for grants to pay for bicycle, pedestrian, transit and road projects.

City Manager John Russo also introduced the city’s new Recreation and Park director, Amy Wooldridge. Wooldridge, who has served as Pinole’s recreation and park director since 2004, begins May 7. Russo said he was impressed by her ability to boost that department’s cost recovery for services, a feat he hopes to see repeated here.