Staedler: San Jose’s public outreach process needs improvement
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

    Over the last several years, how many times have you heard about a San Jose policy decision that was being heard by a committee or commission at the “last minute”?

    The latest community outreach kerfuffle is the city’s staff recommendation to establish an Opportunity Housing policy, as heard by the city’s General Plan Task Force last week. The idea is to explore allowing single-family parcels currently designated “Residential Neighborhood” to develop two to four units per parcel.

    The merits of this policy can be seen from a variety of viewpoints on the city’s website.

    I’m not here to discuss this complex and soul-searching policy on changing the character of neighborhoods for the sake of equitable housing. But the number of issues rising to a crisis level from a neighborhood standpoint are increasing. Just check your Nextdoor app or your neighborhood or community association message board.

    It’s amazing how many comments from frustrated residents are about the “process” again and again. In the year 2020, how people can constantly be surprised confounds me to no end with all of the technology and social media that surrounds us all.

    The city is working to create housing without a Redevelopment Agency in a new Housing Action Plan with an important source of funding coming from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. You can read more about the plan here.

    The report shows the city held 21 community meetings and 308 people attended. That’s an average of roughly 15 people per meeting. The meeting attendance ranged from 85 attendees to just one person. The meeting with one attendee was held at City Hall during the work day.

    San Jose also created online and written surveys to receive public input on the Action Plan from Oct. 25 to Dec. 26. It received 648 surveys — 630 in English; 15 in Spanish; two in Vietnamese and one in Chinese. Staff met with 21 stakeholder groups, but failed to meet with neighborhood associations. This outreach process cannot be seen as a success; it needs to be improved immediately.

    City officials asked for recommendations on how to improve this process in the report — credit to them for recognizing a problem.

    I dug deeper into this problem and discovered that the City Auditor made a series of recommendations in March 2019 for improving public outreach. That report was focused on noticing related to developments, but the issues are similar to other public outreach efforts in San Jose. The auditor’s report found the city “should improve mechanisms for reaching neighborhood associations and limited English-speaking communities.” Since then, only one of the auditor’s seven recommendations to improve outreach has been implemented.

    I believe San Jose needs to develop a list and map of neighborhood association contacts to proactively notify them of major policy issues being discussed.

    These groups are full of hard-working and caring residents who want to be engaged on these issues. Working in a silo mentality and only telling residents the least amount of information to get pet policy objectives approved is a disservice to everyone. It’s amazing what can be achieved with buy-in from a neighborhood — the concepts become more refined and goodwill gained.

    This goodwill is needed when having tough conversations, such as the redevelopment of neighborhoods and micro-mobility items like rentable electric mopeds that can be dumped into permit parking areas.

    The city’s Department of Transportation had a great line in one of its community meetings — “Moving at the Speed of Trust.”  That’s a great sentiment, but what happens when the tank gets low on trust? It’s time to fill it up by rebuilding trust with the residents of San Jose. It’s not insurmountable. Start by following the City Auditor’s recommendations and put aside the silo mentality. Onward and upward.

    San José Spotlight columnist Bob Staedler is a principal at Silicon Valley Synergy, a San Jose-based land use and development consulting firm. His columns appear every first Monday of the month. Contact Bob at [email protected] or follow @BobStaedler on Twitter.

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