Public engagement for the City of Northfield: Councilors want to know what should be changed

Eric ZweifelA week ago, the Northfield City Council met for a retreat (not AIG style, I’m told) and, among other things, decided to look closely at all areas of public engagement. (See last week’s Nfld News article, New council meets to begin teamwork, setting goals.)

Councilors Erica Zweifel, Jim Pokorney, and Kris Vohs are on the subcommittee to look at public engagement. They are expected report back to the Council in early Feb. with some recommendations.

I met with Erica earlier this week at the Goodbye Blue Monday to better understand the scope of their inquiry and talk a little bit about how online tools might be part of the solution.

Evidently, everything is on the table, including:

  • Providing information to the public. This would include the City’s web site, monthly print newsletter, and the broadcast/streaming of video of official public meetings. (See Bonnie Obremski’s RepJ story, City could stream video by 2010, as well as her series of RepJ stories on NTV.)
  • Ward meetings
  • Town meetings
  • Boards and commissions (structure, effectiveness, meetings)
  • Public input before, during, and after Council and other public meetings. This would include open mic.
  • Blogs
  • Online input and discussions

For the past two weeks, we’ve been discussing (117 comments thus far) the pros and cons of Northfield’s online eco-system for civic engagement. The discussion has mostly focused on Locally Grown, RepJ, and Northfield’s civic blogosphere within the context of professional journalism and citizen journalism – and with some forays into civic capacity-building.

Discussion on this blog post, however, needs to be both broader (not just online engagement) and more practical (what specifically needs to be changed or tried). If the discussion is substantive IMHO, I’ll produce a PDF transcript and ask that it be given to each councilor before their Feb. meeting.

Councilor Zweifel has agreed to follow this discussion and chime in as she sees fit.

69 thoughts on “Public engagement for the City of Northfield: Councilors want to know what should be changed”

  1. Gov’t openness and transparency while getting more input and involvement from ordinary citizens were among the themes in President Obama’s remarks today. See Remarks By The President Welcoming Senior Staff And Cabinet Secretaries – 1/21/09

    Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

    Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans — scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs — because the way to solve the problem of our time is — the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.

  2. Griff, you’re not going to bring David L over with an Obama quote! 🙂

    However, Obama is spot-on. Government is the collective of its citizens. It is we governing ourselves.

    The subset of individuals in ‘authority’ at any one point in time will be comprised of talents and experiences that are a subset of those in the community, not a superset.

    So, the subset will benefit from input received by members of the superset, provided they have good judgment as one of their skills.

  3. We talked about the idea of an ‘online open mic’ on today’s podcast with Eric Zweifel.

    The current limitation: On Fridays before a Council meeting/work session, City staff publish the agenda and supporting documents as PDFs to the City web site. (They’re also available at City Hall and the Library.) Citizens who want to PUBLICLY comment on those agenda items must show up at the Council meeting and wait for either the open mic segment or the public comment segment on a specific agenda item. People who work during that time, have family obligations or other conflicts, or who are afraid of speaking in public are out of luck.  They only have the option to contact one or more council members individually (phone, email, F2F).

    So one possible way to address this (I’m making this up as I go):

    • An online comment tool attached to the web page of the Agenda where citizens can submit their input on an agenda item.
    • The comments would be publicly displayed in linear fashion in the order that they were submitted. 
    • Just like Open Mic, only one comment per citizen would be allowed (no back and forth discussion like here). 
    • People would be expected to submit their email address with their street address and phone number so that comments could be verified before being published if there was a concern about veracity. A slightly more elaborate procedure could be created in which citizens are issued a UserID and password in which their identity is verified ONCE and thereafter, they can post regularly without staff having to confirm identities.
    • Comments would stop being taken by a certain time on Monday.
    • Councilors could check the comments online anytime prior to the meeting.  
    • A PDF of the comments could be entered into the record or at least a list of the people who submitted comments.  Or maybe a staff person could read the names of those submitting comments on each agenda item.
    • Since the comments would be publicly viewable, they could be used to help further online discussions (SNIP! LINK!) here on LG, on N.org, Nfld News, or any blog in Northfield’s civic blogosphere.

    So what are the pros and cons of this idea? How could it be improved on?

  4. Gentlemen: Obama is quickly winning me over with his words. It remains to be seen if both political parties will follow his lead.

    On the engagement issue, Obama talked about government officials engaging ordinary people. But, he also talked about a code of ethics which would limit access by those who already have substantial access. Perhaps most importantly, he talked about the individuals serving the common good with or without government involvement as being the best service to the nation.

    I also liked his invocation of God at the appropriate moments. Generally, Republicans assume that God will do too much; Democrats assume that God can do too little. Good government must assume neither.

  5. OK, an online open mic is nice, but this is a solution in search of a problem.
    A citizen has every ability to send an e-mail to the mayor or the administrator, asking that it be printed and distributed to the council along with the regular correspondence, which is included in the public record of the council meeting. An individual can ask his councilor to read his statement into the record on his behalf. A person can send someone else to read the statement on his behalf. A person can send a group e-mail to everyone on the council or everyone at City Hall if desired, and send a letter to the newspaper as well.
    And of course, a person can write a statement, print it and deliver it to City Hall, asking it be read into the record.
    In short, there are lots of options for public comment.

  6. Anne is correct in her evaluation of the many ways a citizen can comment to their representative.

    I think you were just working through the possibilities in your mind , Griff, but your podcast suggestion of a real time online comment to councilors during a council meeting is, IMO, a lack of recognition of the amount of areas they are trying to manage during the meeting.

    It is obvious, in meetings, of the difficulty of keeping all your thoughts in order, keeping all your papers in order, having all eyes focussed on you on that dais, knowing all the focus directed on you by the cable TV watchers of the meeting, and trying to do ALL within the sometimes rather obscure, and often not followed, Robert’s Rules of Order.
    The Mayor has an additional heavy burden of managing/chairing the meeting process.

    To add to that not inconsequential burden, the awareness, reading, thought process involved with monitoring online comments would make the task less than productive, as well as certainly slow the meeting down, and ‘everyone’ seems to be so concerned about the meeting length.

    Sorry… bad idea.

  7. Kiffi and I agree…change really is here.
    Online real-time comments would be in total opposition to the limited (and appropriate) public comment periods during a meeting. If you can’t just get up in the middle of a council discussion and participate, you shouldn’t be able to do that online.
    The purpose of public meetings is to make sure the council acts in public, that the public can observe government, not that individuals can pull up a chair and start debating. That’s the problem we’ve had for the last four years, a problem that has allowed a handful of individuals to drag out meetings, thus interfering with the rights of others to hear issues and comment in a timely manner.
    I guess I’m wondering where there are actual instances of people being unable to participate under the current process, and how an online discussion would affect them. Are any councilors reporting problems with people getting in touch with them? Has anyone asked for this online open mic option (other than the triumvirate)?

  8. Griff; Here’s a great test case for you…….. you could clarify a moderation /ethics/inquiry-as -to-process-from- Felicity, all in one fell swoop here, with reference to Anne’s comment immediately above… which is an ‘agreement’ , a double personal slam, and a reiteration of a point already made; all slickly packaged together in a supposedly acceptable manner, at least one which differs from the style on the NFNews website.

  9. Anne, if citizens have all these other means to contact their councilors, why not eliminate open mic then? It eats up a lot of council meeting time, people often are disrespectful but councilor have to sit there and take it, there’s no transcript of comments, etc etc.

    One (of many) of the advantages of open mic is that it’s the only way for citizens to officially address the council and have the entire citizenry (via NTV, DVD, KYMN) hear their comments, too. And then because the comments are public, subsequent commenters (at that meeting or subsequent meetings) can fine-tune their comments based on what earlier speakers said. Speaking to a council in a group setting is powerful.

    So I’m just proposing another way for this to happen, one that takes advantage of the online medium and accommodates to people’s busy schedules, and acknowledges the fact that fear of public speaking is the #1 ranked fear among the general public.

  10. Griff, I’m not opposed to having the open mic expanded to include online comments, which would be read by someone in the room during the specified time limit, just as an e-mail sent before the meeting would be read by someone in the room. I’m ok with having the comments seen on a screen in the room (but still read into the record). I’m not ok with online streaming of questions throughout the meeting.
    If you go back a few commments, you’ll see that I suggested having a webcam option for people to speak to the county board (or council) in the open mic or public comment section of a meeting. E-mail is another version of that.
    All I’m saying is that so far, this is something you feel the city needs, but I have seen no evidence that anyone has been unable to comment under the current system. There is no media committee (which I also recommended) that has surveyed the city and determined that this is the best use of city funds to expand participation. There is only the strong, unrelenting demand of one person, (or perhaps three people) presuming to speak on behalf of the public. I would just like to see some real public input before a decision is made to add a feature that so far seems an amenity rather than a necessity.

  11. Griff: Excusez-moi , if I heard you incorrectly, but I thought you suggested the realtime online comment process in your podcast with Tracy and Erica?
    Open Mic cannot be eliminated without changing the Charter, as it is provided for in that document. And although the council minutes are very skimpy, they do list the name , address, and gist of each person’s open mic comment.

  12. Excuse me as well, as I misunderstood your proposal. Now I’m more confused. It seems the only difference between this online process and e-mail would be in having the messages posted on the website as comments, as they are here.
    Again, I’m not seeing how this will be an improvement over e-mail, telephone, etc. And I’m not seeing the demand.

  13. Griff: The strength of the open mic process is also its weakness. People are often bypassing their reps or using the open mic process as a political tool to get their way.

    Who wants to run an ad in the News or on KYMN when they can get the Council’s ear directly with very little effort? The process is so open that you don’t even have to be a citizen to speak.

  14. In yesterday’s Strib: Surprises, civility dominate at Edina town-hall session.

    The Edina City Council decided to hold
    the town hall meeting as a way to give
    residents an open forum with city
    officials. Last year, some residents
    complained that city rules about what
    they could comment on at regular
    council meetings were too restrictive.

    Council members, pointing to Eden
    Prairie’s success with town hall
    meetings, thought a less formal
    setting might encourage some of the
    city’s more bashful residents to have
    a dialogue with city officials.

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