Encinitas launching virtual town hall for civic engagement

ENCINITAS — To gather input from residents who don’t like the idea of sitting through council meetings, the city is launching a virtual town hall.

The service, powered by the company Peak Democracy, was just one part of an outreach plan that was unveiled at Wednesday night’s City Council meeting.

Through the online initiatives, the city’s goal is to step up civic engagement. Mike Cohen, co-founder of Peak Democracy, said feedback from a variety of residents is crucial for decision-makers.

He went on to say residents have traditionally weighed in at city workshops or meetings, but most don’t possess the time to attend.

He added those meetings tend to draw those with more extreme views, discouraging moderates. “We’re augmenting the conventional approach so people can weigh in on their own time online,” Cohen said.

Encinitas is the first city in the county to sign up for Peak Democracy, which 80 other government agencies across the nation use.

In Virginia Beach, Va. for instance, one of its Peak Democracy topics on residential hen zoning garnered more than 630 comments.

“That would have been a public hearing of 32 hours,” Cohen said. “So it’s a good way to get feedback efficiently.” A city can also post relevant background information and accompanying images to help residents understand an issue. For instance, city planners scoping out spots for a new civic center might include mock-up designs of how the building would look in various areas.

Participants taking part in the forum must register by providing their names and addresses. Peak Democracy authenticates users.

And it moderates comments to keep the dialogue civil, separating the service from other websites, Cohen noted.

If the city chooses, it can limit an individual to no more than one comment per topic.

Cohen acknowledged it’s possible for someone to “game” the system and post multiple comments through a concerted effort, yet software prevents them from systematically doing so.

Because residents voluntarily contribute to a topic, Deputy Mayor Mark Muir questioned whether the results are representative of the community.

In response, Cohen said the forum is only intended to gather feedback. The website contains a message letting residents know the opinions aren’t representative of the entire city.

And he said the word “vote” is excluded from questions. “If you ask people to vote, you’re giving people the expectation that the comment or idea with the most votes should win and it doesn’t matter what staff or officials think,” he said.

Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer said Peak Democracy comments aren’t a truly representative sample, but neither are City Council meetings.

“It’s a broader swath of the community than we’re getting without using such a tool,” Shaffer said of Peak Democracy.

Muir and Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar still had concerns over the validity of Peak Democracy’s feedback.

They also expressed frustration that the city contracted with Peak Democracy without asking for council’s input.

For those reasons, they abstained from voting on the communications plan, which the three other councilmembers voted in favor of.

Marlena Medford, the city’s communications director, said after the meeting that the city would likely begin using Peak Democracy within the next month or so.

During the meeting, she gave an overview of other goals in the communications plan.

For one, the city wants to expand its social media footprint to inform the public.

“When you hear that fire engine going down the street, you can hop on Twitter and see in real time what the nature of the call is,” Medford said.

And city staff would like to add educational resources to the city’s website, like searchable and easy-to-understand financial data, plus a glossary of terms for those new to city government.

“We have to imagine people who are new to civics don’t know what the California Coastal Commission is or how it relates to the work that we do,” Medford said.

A system issuing construction alerts to affected residents is also planned, along with a revamped newsletter with multimedia in mind, she added.

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