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Virtual Town Hall launches in Encinitas

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.

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6 comments

City Watcher July 10, 2014 at 6:26 pm

It looks like the city and Peak Democracy staff have been ordered to come to this site to make it look like people really are interested.

End the Peak Democracy contract!

Al Rodbell July 11, 2014 at 12:22 am

A silly, yet contentious survey on closing dog parks that they are not really considering closing. Yet, when I suggested that this is the perfect vehicle to allow public feedback on a relevant issue, which is the still not finalized contract to purchase Pacific View, the city manager refuses to allow this to be used.

I presented my proposal to the council clearly on my website, Focus on Encinitas, asking questions such as whether the prime use mentioned by promoters could be built on the site or whether other city owned property would be preferable — issues never brought up in the decision to purchase this land. This is exactly the use that this product is promoted for, and confirms my worse suspicions, that this will be a tool not to advance democratic input, but to thwart it.

This is now a casebook example of how this product can be used by the council to be a cover for ignoring the will of the people. I could be in the minority, but then again maybe my view is widely shared. Yet, even with this new tool at our disposal it looks like we will not know in time to act on this information. It will take a slew of emails to council@encinitasca.gov to make them take action.

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu July 11, 2014 at 3:34 pm

It seems that many in this community have made up their minds that the city is not to be trusted because of its ‘poor track record’ surveying residents in the past. It’s an unfair accusation — we’re fortunate, after all, to live in a city with a council subject to re-election every few years. I would hate for someone to evaluate my job performance based on what someone who held the job before me did (or failed to do).

Even if the prior surveys were less-than-desirable, that doesn’t automatically negate the value of this tool. Perhaps the City chose Peak Democracy precisely because it helps mitigate some of the problems with past efforts at data-collection. For one, it puts transparency in the hands of users — the users can decide how much information to provide, and the replies are uploaded in real-time, which eliminates the need for ‘processing’ cumbersome boxes of surveys. Users get to see the raw data, and can therefore interpret the data any way they want. I also like the fact that one must register with a real name — anonymity breeds lots of back-biting and discourse that is not civil. We need more civility in this town.

As a parent of two young children who rarely has the time or capacity to attend city council meetings, I appreciate that the city is providing an additional way to make my voice heard. As the council has noted, the views presented at council meetings are not always reflective of the broader community. Yet if we devoted three minutes to each of the nearly 300 people who have weighed in on the e-Town Hall’s first question, it would add more than 15 hours of public comments to a City Council meeting! Surely none of us want to attend council meetings that last until the wee hours. This tool gives us a way in, as well as a way out. Furthermore, it seems to me and others I’ve spoken with that some of the fear pertaining to this tool comes from those who are vocal critics of the city and are afraid their voices will no longer be the loudest.

One important thing to remember is that e-Town Hall provides value not just to the City, but to its citizens — and in a way that’s completely independent from governance. When I read through the comments in the first e-Town Hall forum, I recognized the names of several people I was unaware were Encinitas residents (the famed choreographer Patricia Rincon, for example, as well as several colleagues at UCSD). Without this tool, I might never have known we shared a place of residence in common, nor would I have known that I also share similar views with many of my neighbors (or, in the instances when I don’t, I’m offered an opportunity to be humble). This, to me, is the definition of community-building. I vow to give it a chance. (Note: I also submitted a version of these comments to the Encinitas Advocate)

Diane July 12, 2014 at 9:22 am

At first blush it sounds like a good way to get input to the City, however who reads the comments? Has each City Council member committed to reading each and every one? Or is staff reading them and compiling a summary? If City Council isn’t reading them, it is a waste of money. You can email the City Council members directly — sure they can ignore your email but better than having staff interpret it for them.

Susan SChein August 5, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Dear City Council:

My name is Susan Schein and I have lived in Cardiff in my present house since 1979. I am writing because of no trash cans at a dog beach “Georges”. Several years ago there used to be three trash cans along the rocks at the now non-existent life guard tower, the stop light on Hwy. 101 and near the “no parking” sign towards Seaside. I do not understand how the city can let this be a dog beach with no trash cans. Everyday that I go to this beach there is dog-doo wrapped in plastic left on the rocks, road and sand. I realize Cardiff does not own this beach and when I investigated a few years ago I was told to contact Parks/recreation in Carlsbad. I was told there was no $ for trash cans. This is a dirty situation for beach goes along with all the trash people are leaving. Please do something either get trash cans and remove dogs from this beach. Also, dog owners let there dogs run loose until the lifeguards come by only once or twice a day whenever I have gone to this beach. Dog owners seem to realize they will not get tickets so they have nothing to lose by letting their dog roam free.

Susan Shine August 5, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Dear City Council:

I have lived in Cardiff in my present house since 1979. I am writing because of no trash cans at a dog beach “Georges”. Several years ago there used to be three trash cans along the rocks at the now non-existent life guard tower, the stop light on Hwy. 101 and near the “no parking” sign towards Seaside. I do not understand how the city can let this be a dog beach with no trash cans. Everyday that I go to this beach there is dog-doo wrapped in plastic left on the rocks, road and sand. I realize Cardiff does not own this beach and when I investigated a few years ago I was told to contact Parks/recreation in Carlsbad. I was told there was no $ for trash cans. This is a dirty discusting situation for beach goes along with all the trash people are leaving. Please do something either get trash cans and remove dogs from this beach. Also, dog owners let there dogs run loose until the lifeguards come by only once or twice a day whenever I have gone to this beach. Dog owners seem to realize they will not get tickets so they have nothing to lose by letting their dog roam free.

Comments are closed.