2 Minutes per Public Comment

At the mock city council meeting, I sat as an aide next to the town’s last undecided councilmember.  The choice before us: whether to build a lower-density, luxury housing development or higher-density, affordable housing development on the site of a former industrial warehouse and along side a neglected waterway.  The meeting had already begun by the time I arrived, and I felt under-prepared.  Perhaps no more under-prepared than an aide might realistically be who is carrying a full workload with competing priorities.

Community Advocates Leadership Academy

This mock city council meeting was the culmination of the 9-month, Community Advocates Leadership Academy (CALA) hosted by the Committee for Green Foothills.  The first Saturday of each month, we heard from the Bay Area’s leading advocates for bikeways, community housing, and labor rights, as well as from communication strategists, city planners and supervisors.  We met in regional parks, city halls, and the community rooms of new, affordable housing developments.  The goal of the program was to prepare citizens for fuller and more strategic participation in local government.

When I slipped into my seat at the Los Altos Hills City Council Chambers, the Mayor's aide was already collecting comment cards (and a lot of them) from the public.  Staff presented the problem space and what the city hoped to gain by developing this land.  After, the developers had a chance to frame and present their proposals.  Far from being out of touch and outlandish, the luxury housing developers grounded their presentation in an awareness of the complications and challenges involved in the project, and of the community culture and city goals.  They were prepared with proactive suggestions for relocating a homeless encampment along the river, and for restoring and protecting the waterway.  By contrast, the community housing developer made a personal and impassioned plea for the city to value affordable housing.


City Councilmember #2 Aide

Key staff to the city Councilmember #2.  Provides guidance on issues, speaks on behalf of the councilmember. Represents councilmember if she is not available. Resident of the city, needs a more affordable housing option in the city.

(Makes a statement in the beginning of the city council meeting before the meeting is called to order about the councilmember’s take on the project because the councilmember is stuck in traffic.)

We were given many details about the site and planned developments, as well as the twisted relationships and sources of potential influence among the players.  Our homework was to prepare questions we might want to ask, concerns we might have, and things we might want to say to sway the council’s final decision.  In our exercise, no decision was ultimately made.  And many of the participants wished we could do it again, so that their talking points could be more polished and to the point.  But I think the messiness and wide variance in the prep work people put into the project made it an incredibly educational experience.  In fact, the most impactful of the entire program.

As interest group after interest group stepped up to the mic and made impassioned pleas for the council members to care about native plants, the dignity and security of homeless members of the community, birds, open space, human powered transportation, less traffic, historical site preservation, schools, and local businesses, a light finally turned on in me.  Sitting on this side of the council table, these 2 minute statements were not helpful to me.  I wished they had instead used their love of plants, social justice, biodiversity, etc. to help us solve one of the many complex problems before the city.



NEW BUSINESS: The Willow Corner
4.1 Presentation from City Staff
4.2 Presentation from Developers
4.3 Public Comment (2 minute statement each)
4.4 City Council Discussion
4.5 Vote

Advocate as Problem Solver 

Before this exercise, I believed advocates were more effective if they could inspire interest in the causes they cared about.  And to be sure, inspiration is useful.  But after this exercise, it felt not quite as necessary nor sufficient as I had previously thought.  The councilwoman for whom I worked as an aide, leaned over during the proceedings and whispered, with one hand covering her mic, “I’m happy to care about all these things, but I can’t make a decision unless I can see how either project would help us meet the strategic goals we’ve set for our city.  Why don’t these groups use their familiarity with their area of concern to help us negotiate on the details of each proposal?”  She saw, in other words, the greater usefulness of advocates as problem solvers, not just champions.  And I think she was really right.

After two hours of back and forth, the development decision was finally tabled for a hypothetical future council session.  Megan Medeiros and Debbie Mytels, CALA leaders and masterminds behind the mock city council meeting, say no team in the program’s history has voted on one development over the other.  The decision always gets tabled for later.  In our debrief after the exercise, there was a lot of energy in the room.  Everyone was eager to share a moving takeaway.  And many of us shared the wish that we had prepared more.  But as it went down, the common pattern of advocacy that surfaced, ie. please care about my cause, and fact that it ultimately failed, pointed the way towards a new model of advocacy for me.  A slightly cooler one.  I'll still make an emotional and heartfelt case, but not without good reasons and solid problem solving suggestions.  The hope, right, is that a better researched, packaged, and presented solution to the stakeholder's particular problem makes my preferred solution an easier and more compelling option for them to adopt.