ENCINITAS — Encinitas’ first foray into online civic engagement has not been without some bumps.
The city late last month launched e-Town Hall, an online forum that allows constituents to vote or provide feedback on topics that the city posts.
For its first topic, the city asked the following question: “How important is it for off-leash dog hours to remain at Encinitas Viewpoint, Orpheus and Sun Vista parks to continue once the new dedicated 2-acre off-leash dog park is open at Encinitas Community Park?”
The question, which city officials said they thought was innocuous, has dog-park visitors up in arms and has led some to believe the question was a prelude to the city closing its three dog parks.
One resident reportedly passed out leaflets at one of the local parks that further stoked concerns and outcry.
Julie Graboi, a local activist who is running for City Council in November, said she can see how residents could jump to that conclusion.
“This question is not just a question, but an implicit threat to dog park users,” said Graboi, who addressed this issue in an opinion piece in The Coast News. “The question has polarized park users.”
City staff members said they believe the question has been taken out of context, and reiterated that the forum is not intended to dictate city policy. There are no plans to shut down the dog parks, they said.
“People have this perception that this will dictate policy,” city Spokeswoman Marlena Medford said. “The question has been misinterpreted and misunderstood.”
Medford said the question was selected by a group of 20 staff members, and chosen because the topic of the dog park was timely in the wake of the Council’s vote to name a new park after the late Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan.
“It was intended to begin a dialogue and collect opinions and feedback,” said Medford, who said the Council is the ultimate arbiter of city policy.
A reporter visited Orpheus Park during off leash hours and found no signs of the leaflets. Dog owners at the park had not heard of the new forum or the question, but said they believed the city, if anything, should add more hours at the dog locations.
“I think it’s very important to keep the parks open,” said Kerry Fiesler, who was at the park with her labradoodle Jersey. “Depending on where you live, the new park might be too far,” Fiesler said.
Fiesler and others said they would likely voice their opinions on the e-Town Hall before the topic closes Friday.
E-Town Hall, which is operated by Northern California-based Peak Democracy, was borne from a desire of city officials to offer more outlets for civic engagement than currently exist, such as speaking at council meetings or other public forums and writing individual government officials.
Even before its launch, some residents questioned its effectiveness as a gauge of community sentiment because it is not a scientific poll, while others questioned whether the project was a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Still others pointed to concerns that using the system, even with an alias, would make the user’s name, email address and other information a matter of public record.
Medford said the city has been clear with residents that the poll is not scientific, but will be used in connection with the city’s other forms of civic engagement to give the City Council and decision makers as much public input as possible. Even so, she said Peak Democracy uses several safeguards to limit the number of responses a user can make on a particular topic, so a person can’t “stack the deck” of public opinion.
As far as funding goes, city officials said the money did not come from the general fund, which is used to pay for basic city services, but from a portion its franchise fee with cable and satellite companies that is earmarked for improving public engagement.
Medford said of the last criticism — regarding public records — the city has a disclaimer on the e-Town Hall page letting the public known that registration information is public information that can be requested through a public records request.
“Staff spent a year looking at platforms for public engagement and the consensus was that this was the best one,” said Medford, adding that the actual first topic on the site was an internal poll in which city staff voted on the site’s name. E-Town Hall was the winner.