Changing Our Relationship with City Government

During my campaign for City Council, I’ve been talking a lot about the need to change the culture of City Hall. I truly believe I can be part of that change when I get elected.

But changing a culture requires more than just replacing the people at the top. It demands altered behavior and different relationships among all of those involved. And a big step toward that broader change occurred Sept. 25 when nearly 100 members of the community gathered in the City Council chambers to talk about reconstructing the relationship between Santa Rosa’s government and Santa Rosa’s citizens.

“Historically this has been more like a parent-child relationship,” said Matt Leighninger, who led the session. He was referring to the kind of relationship where a parent lays down the law, and when the child asks why, the answer is usually something along the lines of, “Because I said so.”

“The idea is to change that into a more adult-adult relationship.”

Leighninger is executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, a Washington-based group that is focused on increasing public participation in government. He was brought here by Santa Rosa Together, a local grassroots effort in pursuit of that same goal.

It was significant that the session took place at City Hall. Because to date – with a couple of individual exceptions – the leadership of Santa Rosa government and the efforts of Santa Rosa Together have not crossed paths.

“That the city is a co-sponsor is a very good sign,” said Tanya Narath, who chairs the city’s Community Advisory Board and is a member of Santa Rosa Together. “Things are changing.”

That’s good news.

If you don’t spend much time at City Hall, you’ll need some background at this point. City Council meetings on Tuesday nights are usually sparsely attended, and good-government groups for years have talked about ways to increase public involvement. Despite those efforts, though, such involvement often includes either a few die-hard attendees who are allotted three minutes of speaking time on any given item or – if something controversial pops up on the agenda – groups of residents agitated about a single issue who usually leave frustrated by a process that makes the word “participation” seem like cruel irony.

And it’s not getting any better. As Leighninger pointed out, today’s citizens have more information and communication resources available than ever before, yet these “21st Century residents are dealing with 20th Century institutions.”

“You’ve got people with 24-7 access to the internet, instant information and communication,” he said, “versus (a council that allows only) three-minute public comments. It ends up being frustrating to both sides.”

It’s not just a problem in Santa Rosa, of course. But it is exacerbated here by a Council that is split along historic fissures and for the past year has been further divided by personal animosities.

Some of that will change with the election of three new council members in November. But the council will still need to do council business, in a formal setting, with a formal process each Tuesday evening.

What Leighninger and the group at City Hall were talking about goes beyond that process, though. It would require, as Leighninger put it, “treating citizens like adults.” That means providing them with more information, giving them a chance to tell their own stories and experiences in a public setting, offering them choices that go beyond “yes or no,” providing them with chances to take action and – perhaps more than anything else – bestowing upon them “legitimacy.”

That can’t be done in three minutes.

Nor can it be explained in this short space. But you can view Leighninger’s presentation here. And you can stay in touch with Santa Rosa Together by emailing its leader, Hank Topper, at hanktopper@gmail.com

There are other efforts, too, to make city government more accessible to the people who don’t work at City Hall. The city’s Task Force on Open Government is working to increase transparency and improve communication between city government and the public. At its Sept. 29 meeting to discuss recommendations to the City Council, the number-one bullet point was to “Develop a Culture That Values Public Engagement.” The whole report is here.

These are laudable efforts. But they need to be shepherded through the bureaucracy and legal codes that govern public meetings. And they need support from the City Council.

Which reminds me: There’s an election on November 4. Nine candidates are on the ballot seeking three open seats. One of them keeps talking about changing the status quo at City Hall. That would be me – the outsider who hasn’t worked at City Hall and offers a whole new perspective on the way city government can and should work.

Please keep that in mind when you cast your vote.