Peak Democracy contract up for cancellation

ENCINITAS — The Encinitas City Council next week will consider cancelling its contract with the company that powers its online civic engagement platform, eTown Hall.

A divided council on Feb. 5, as part of a compromise to placate Mayor Kristin Gaspar and Councilman Mark Muir’s concern about the Housing Element Process, voted to return at a later date with the cancellation of the city’s contract with Berkeley-based Peak Democracy, which services more than 80 cities and counties nationwide with its online engagement tools.

The contract, which was originally signed in Feb. 2014, was recently renewed in January for $9,000, which the city makes in two $4,500 payments. The contract allows for termination at any time, provided the terminating party gives 30 days notice.

Mayor Kristin Gaspar, who made the motion to bring the termination back for discussion, said the “deal breaker” for her was the results of the Housing Element outreach, which she said was a failure.

About 500 residents posted comments during the city’s month-long public outreach campaign, but Gaspar’s dissection of the numbers showed the input amounted to only a few dozen people from each of the city’s five communities, which she said was hardly enough to use to justify such a major decision such as the Housing Element.

“On some issues, my colleagues are absolutely correct that voters have elected us to represent their interests on the dais,” Gaspar said. “But there are some issues that have long lasting implications, and you really want to have a good handle on what the community thinks about a particular topic. The Housing Element is one such item.

“The (eTown Hall) numbers were just so slim…we went to the online engagement tool and it failed us,” Gaspar said. “The proof is in the information that came back to us.”

The city’s pact with Peak Democracy has come under fire almost since its inception, as critics have questioned its effectiveness as a gauge of community sentiment because it is not a scientific poll, and have expressed concerns that users’ information — email and physical addresses, names and other information required to use the system — become public records accessible through routine public records’ requests.

Most recently, The Coast News highlighted several dubious posts on one of the forum topics, the type that proponents said would be caught by the system’s safeguards.

Council members Tony Kranz and Lisa Shaffer voted against the compromise motion. Kranz said Thursday that he is not opposed to having a discussion about the merits of Peak Democracy, but believed cancellation should not have been part of the Feb. 5 discussion.

“I have no problem having a conversation about the value of Peak Democracy,” Kranz said. “We have tested it, and whether it is serving us well or not is a conversation that I think is important to have.”

Kranz said he believed the city’s tenure with the company got off “on the wrong foot” because staff had already signed the contract before informing council about the service.

“It was presented to the council and the community like there was a choice when in fact the contract had already been signed,” Kranz said.

Kranz said he believed the online tool, which allows users to post comments on city-generated topics, adequately served its purpose during the housing element outreach.

“There was a lot of valuable information in the comments that were provided,” Kranz said.

Some of the council and public have argued that the housing element was not the best use of eTown Hall due to the complexity of the information that users had to distill before choosing one of the city’s prefabricated housing maps or building one of their own.

Gaspar, however, feels adamant that the platform has no real value, and said she would have strong reservations about the housing element process moving forward if the council does not cancel the contract. Aiming her comments at Deputy Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who voted along with Gaspar and Muir to bring the item back for discussion, she said she fully expects the cancellation to take place.

“When we were asked what it would take to bring us back, we had a number of requests and those requests were voted on by myself, Councilman Muir and the deputy mayor,” Gaspar said. “If the deputy mayor were to change her mind, that would be disingenuous in my opinion…and could be a deal breaker for myself and Councilman Muir.”

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