What is the meaning of public participation?

I spent four hours at City Hall on Sept. 14, attending a City Council meeting. I am a member of the public and I thought I was participating. However, after the meeting, I began to wonder just what public participation means in Encinitas.
The staff reported on the progress in the general plan update and presented their public outreach schedule for the next four months. The staff has already held a number of public meetings, workshops, and presentations that fed into the general plan update document released on Sept. 1.
Councilman Stocks was irate, referring to his outburst later as a “tantrum.” He insisted that the document have a disclaimer saying that the council had not yet reviewed it or given input. Despite periodic presentations to council about the process, and all the public meetings that have already been held, apparently this has not been transparent enough for Mr. Stocks.
He appeared briefly at one workshop to introduce the program and then left. So he never took advantage of the opportunities provided by staff at the direction of the council. This council seems to be afraid of the word “draft.” The whole idea was to distribute a draft document, provide four months for comments, and then bring the council an updated version for council consideration.
If Mr. Stocks’ supporters are unhappy with the draft, he doesn’t have to be as defensive as he appears to be. He can just tell them it’s a draft and encourage them to provide their comments through the process already established.
Quite a few business people, mainly property managers who represent retailers on the El Camino Real corridor, spoke at the meeting to protest that the business community had not been given the opportunity to participate.
Why they didn’t know about the public meetings and workshops is not clear. Someone organized them to come to the council meeting with well-coordinated presentations. Some of them seemed to be saying that they deserved a special role because they are “the people most affected” by proposed changes in zoning and density.
I was disappointed that the council members who have close relationships with the business community weren’t more pro-active in encouraging their participation in the process. There is no question that the business community is important, and their voices need to be heard.
We also need to make sure that the voices of consumers and residents are heard. This has been happening through the public meetings. Unfortunately, our mayor disparages those who participate. He said on Sept. 14 that most people don’t want to attend the public meetings.
To quote the mayor: “They want to stay home and watch ‘Survivor’ and have a beer… The people who do want to come down appear to be activists…we’re getting a lot of input from folks who are looking for something to do.”
I find this troublesome. Instead of appreciating and encouraging citizens who take the time and make the effort to attend meetings, the mayor dismisses us as “activists” who “are looking for something to do.” These meetings were organized by city staff and supported by a consultant that the city has already paid more than $1 million. It is not a trivial task to organize and conduct a public participation effort.
Believe me, Mr. Mayor, I have lots of other things to do. I’m there because I care about the future of Encinitas and I’m trying to engage in a process the city has offered for this purpose.
Councilwoman Gaspar somehow knows what public opinion is, and was able to state with certainty that the draft was not responsive to the views of the public. She didn’t state the source of her knowledge of public attitudes.
She did offer a constructive suggestion about how to proceed, which involves the various commissions established by the council (e.g., Parks & Recreation, Traffic, Environment). This is a reasonable suggestion.
However, if we dig a bit deeper, we have to question who serves on those commissions and how well they represent the public — after all, the commissioners are appointed by the City Council majority, and those with contrary views are often excluded from serving, and thus have no voice.
There is dysfunction in the governance of Encinitas. We have hard-working staff trying to engage the public, and we have elected officials disparaging the staff and the citizens who participated and provided comments. We have business people bypassing the public process and asking for special access because they are more important than the rest of the community.
The general plan update draft needs work. A version showing changes from the current general plan is essential. And the public process needs to go forward with the council’s support.
At the same time, we need a fresh look at how we select our public commissions and what work we ask them to do. We need elected officials who treat the public and the staff with respect. We need a new City Council majority who appreciate the value of public participation and are open to all the voices in the community.

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