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Online Forums: A Way to Be Heard at City Hall without Ever Leaving Home

CITY HALL-Over the years neighborhood councils and many community organizations have gotten a bum rap for being NIMBYs – people who seem to be against everything and never have any positive suggestions. 

This misperception exists for three reasons: 

First, city hall repeatedly develops plans for ballot measures, tax increases, reductions in services, and new laws in secret, and then drops them on an uninformed public at the last minute to avoid public scrutiny. 

Second, too often the only way for anyone without a lobbyist to have their voice heard is to schlep to City Hall during the middle of a workday, wait (sometimes hours) for the item to be called, and speak for a couple of minutes to city council members who too often aren’t paying attention. 

Third, many neighborhood councils would like to develop meaningful options to undesirable proposals, or to proactively draft new ideas, but there is no viable mechanism through which to do this. 

If city hall were to participate in public discussions about critical issues, we will see more innovative proposals to improve Los Angeles that you normally get when the discussions are limited to just city council members, and the special interests and gadflies who attend their meetings. 

A solution is to create a place on the Internet where the public can collaborate with city officials and each other to make the city more livable.  

A website could be created and maintained using free tools.  

The site could be centered around a moderated discussion group or blog divided into different threads for the issues that are important to the public. 

Anonymous postings should be permitted and encouraged because there are many people who have valuable information to share, but who would put their jobs at risk by doing so publicly.  The value of a post should be its content, and not who posted it. 

The number of issues would be limited by how many volunteer moderators could be enlisted.  

Moderators would screen for off-topic and ranting posts, and keep guiding the participants toward a consensus, as opposed to most blogs where comments drift from one to another without any outcome.  

This is exactly what would happen in face-to-face meetings.  No one would dream of holding a public meeting where people would say whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted without a moderator.  But that’s the way blogs function now.  People stop posting when they get bored and leave. 

Moderators would seek facts and data about each issue to heighten the quality of the discussion.  

Surveys would be taken from time-to-time to take the pulse of the participants and help guide the direction of the discussion. 

City officials would be asked to join the discussion, which they may do if the discussions were civilized.  

When face-to-face meetings were the held, the attendees would be more focused and productive because they would have had an opportunity to prepare.   

Finally, the website would be a place where action plans could be coordinated by the moderator(s).  It could include online petitions, e-mail addresses and phone numbers of city officials, a list of meetings to attend, etc. 

Neither online nor face-to-face meetings alone can give the public its best opportunity to affect government’s decision-making.  Both need to be used in combination. 

For centuries, in-person meetings have been the only way for the public to have their voices heard.  But now we have the Internet that can open the process to those populations that have been traditionally disenfranchised.  

As city budgets and staffs are being trimmed, it is more important than ever before to find alternate ways to allow public input, especially methods that are more cost effective and efficient than the status quo.

 

(Greg Nelson is a former general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, was instrumental in the creation of the LA Neighborhood Council System, served as chief of staff for former LA City Councilman Joel Wachs …  and occasionally writes for CityWatch. He can be reached atgregn213@cox.net)
-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 12 Issue 37

Pub: May 6, 2014