The story of how Bobby Shriver joined the Santa Monica City Council almost 10 years ago is quite famous in certain circles on the Westside. Shriver engaged in a dispute with City Hall concerning the allowable height of hedges on his property. The dispute turned into a successful bid for a City Council seat.
While not everyone who disputes a city policy or practice would be elected to the council, those currently sitting on the dais hope an experiment they approved last week would get more residents involved with the civic process.
Council members unanimously approved Jan. 14 a Community Civic Engagement Strategy (CCES). The experiment aims to incorporate several initiatives to allow more voices to be heard and establish more transparency in Santa Monica’s civic process.
“We’re looking to increase current levels of civic participation, involve a broad spectrum of community members, and create access to learn about what is going on via casual and meaningful ways,” Matthew Mornick from the City Manager’s office told council members. “The current model for engagement where people will bring their questions and concerns to government is outdated.”
City staff added the outdated model of citizens interacting with government “creates an unnecessary barrier between citizens and local government, which may result in misunderstanding and negativity.”
“Santa Monica is well positioned for greater civic engagement,” City staff stated, pointing out about 78 percent of the City’s 60,909 registered voters made it to the polls in November 2012.
Council member Gleam Davis supported the strategy, pointing out the adopted plan could help City Hall become more accessible to residents and stakeholders.
“We want to encourage everyone to feel welcome here in the council chambers but recognize not everyone can always come,” Council member Gleam Davis said. “I think we need to engage the people we want to engage and meet them where they are.”
While council member Kevin McKeown cautioned against some unintended consequences, such as endorsing viewpoints in a non-neutral manner.
“This is one of the most open City Halls in the country,” McKeown told his colleagues. “If you live in Santa Monica, you have an amazing ability to get engaged in local issues that you wouldn’t have in most communities.”
One example of community engagement was recently exemplified with the Michigan Avenue Greenway improvements. City Hall recently hosted a community workshop known as MANGo (Michigan Avenue Neighborhood Greenway), which was an interactive community workshop with temporary installations visually demonstrating the suggested improvements to be made along Michigan Avenue.
“The workshop included help from partnering organizations, complementary lunch, live music, bilingual services and activities for kids,” City staff stated. “Over 400 people attended the event, learned about the greenway, provided input, and weighed trade-offs.”
As for the CCES, City staff suggested four initiatives to foster greater connection between local government and the electorate.
One initiative suggested bridging the gap between Santa Monica’s various age groups.
“According to 2010 census data, 49 percent of Santa Monica residents are 20 – 50 years old (25 percent 20-35 years old, 24 percent 35-50 years old). Millennials and Generation X are an active part of Santa Monica. However people in these age ranges generally do not visibly participate in civic affairs,” City staff stated. “The CCES would look to create … programs that would bring civic affairs to places where people gather.”
The CCES also proposed Biennial Santa Monica Talks, a community meeting series previously known as “Can We Talk?”
“Santa Monica Talks would be held in the second year of the City’s two year budget. At the meetings, staff would discuss what is happening in the city and take questions from the audience. Community members would learn about city services, quality-of-life issues, and provide first-hand information about their concerns,” City staff stated.
Another CCES initiative was the Citizen Academy, which was suggested by City staff in May 2013.
If executed as part of the CCES, the Citizens Academy would “educate residents about their local government and encourage participation in local public policy making … and provide participants with an in-depth understanding of how local government operates.”
Open to the community as a whole, City staff would ultimately select who participates in the six-course program held on weekday evenings.
All seven council members were present at the Jan. 14 meeting.