Providing food and child care: Ideas to boost civic engagement in San Jose

How effective is San Jose at public outreach and community engagement? One Silicon Valley organization says the city could do more, partly by providing food and child care at public governmental meetings.

“We’re Silicon Valley. It’s 2019,” said Alex Shoor, co-founder of Catalyze SV, a nonprofit that focuses on sustainable development and growth. “How is it that if I want to speak at a City Council meeting, I might have to sit for six or eight hours in order to speak for two minutes? Can we think about how to reform our city government so that it’s engaging more of the community?”

Shoor says his organization sent city officials a list of 14 recommendations to increase community engagement, including widening the radius of notification for neighbors who live near a development, translating materials into multiple languages, providing child care services and “a basic meal” for all participants and attendees at public  meetings.

He said these steps could open access for underrepresented communities.

Catalyze SV also recommends that city officials reimburse attendees’ public transit costs and give residents the ability to broadcast public comment from home into a meeting via live video or audio.

That means developers can, and probably should, pay for such public provisions to better represent the communities they hope to develop, Shoor said.

“Our argument to the development community,” Shoor said, “is if there’s a small amount of money put forward by you or the city to do community engagement, and you incorporate the ideas that you learn from the community through that engagement process, then there will be less surprises, less controversy, less opposition as the project moves through the city process.”

He says if developers and city planners implemented more inclusive and transparent public outreach policies for development hearings and planning meetings, “then that’s going to result in some much better projects than we’ve seen in our valley for many, many years.”

“Because what happens through this process is the folks who are often at the table again are not fully representative of our city or our community, both demographically and in their viewpoints,” Shoor said. “And over time, that process again and again, neighborhood by neighborhood, project by project, has resulted in folks who oppose housing, and that opposition to housing on a project-by-project level has resulted in fewer homes being built here.”

So what else could city officials do to help inform the public about new developments in their neighborhoods? And what new outreach policies could the city implement to be more open about public meetings?

The city’s Planning Department sent almost 150,000 public hearing or community meeting notices for tenants and property owners regarding about 400 development projects from 2017 to 2018, according to a recent report by the City Auditor.

But the city “does not regularly involve neighborhood associations early in the [development noticing] process, which could help identify projects that may warrant additional outreach,” the report said.

City planning officials recently reviewed the city auditor’s report which found that most on-site development notices are “posted after the 10 working days required by the city.”

Changing the city’s public outreach policy would take time, officials said, and might not happen until two years from now, if the City Council decides to prioritize it.

“There would need to be a lot of community engagement to update this policy,” Deputy City Manager Kim Walesh recently told a city committee. “This is assuming sometime in the next year you prioritize and you resource it, we would love to have the opportunity to have the dedicated year and just get it done.”

In an interview Monday, Michael Brilliot, a deputy director for the city’s Planning Department, said that his office would be directly involved in implementing a new public outreach policy.

He said that “we generally agree” with the city auditor’s recommendations, but that “democracy tends to be slow and inefficient,” so the new policy is not something his office could quickly jump into without shifting other priorities.

“We’re the 10th largest city in America, and we generally don’t have the staffing to be the 10th largest city in America,” Brilliot told San José Spotlight. “When you add the cost for more public involvement, it adds time.”

Contact Kyle Martin at kylebmartin96@gmail.com or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.

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