Council shuts down eTown Hall

ENCINITAS — The Encinitas City Council voted to cancel the city’s contract with the company that powers its online civic engagement tool, eTown Hall.

The council voted 4-1 to cancel the $9,000 contract with Berkeley-based Peak Democracy and form a subcommittee to research alternative outreach strategies in the context of the city’s overall communication plan. Lisa Shaffer cast the dissenting vote.

ETown Hall tool had become a political lightning rod almost since its inception, and nearly derailed the city’s housing element update discussions before a divided council voted Feb. 5 to return at a later date with the proposed cancellation, one of several items aimed at placating Mayor Kristin Gaspar and Councilman Mark Muir’s concern about the housing element process.

“This has become a partisan lightning rod and we should move on from it immediately,” Deputy Mayor Catherine Blakespear said. Blakespear said she felt the eTown Hall discussion had become a “sideshow” and had taken the council’s focus away from other pressing issues.

The council disagreed for a time on how they should move on. Both Blakespear and Councilman Tony Kranz favored the subcommittee approach for identifying an alternative for civic engagement, while Gaspar and Muir believed city’s staff, spearheaded by communications Supervisor Marlena Medford, should evaluate alternatives in context with the entire communications strategy.

“This (eTown Hall) was part of a grander vision,” Gaspar said. “It seems odd to pull it out of the hands of communications, and put it in the hands of the council. I don’t know how you evaluate one component without looking at how it interfaces with the other components.”

Ultimately, the council settled on the subcommittee format, which they said would include city staff in the process and look at online and other forms of engaging the public in the bigger scheme of the communication’s strategy.

Shaffer, the lone holdout, said the online forum tool had received an undeservedly bad reputation, and that the council should trust staff’s judgment call as it pertained to the tool’s selection.

“We had staff evaluate all the different tools so that it wouldn’t become political,” Shaffer said. “I still don’t really understand what the concern is about Peak Democracy per se.

“We should trust staff and use the tool they have studied with their expertise and we should stay out of it,” Shaffer said.

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.

With the vote, the council will issue a 30-day notice to Peak Democracy on Thursday and the company will refund the city a prorated amount of $3,375.

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