(This is the second installment of our first Santa Monica Next Salon, aimed at discussing how to get the younger generations more involved in civic life. Part I can be found here, and the introduction can be found here. – DN)
Santa Monica, for better or worse, is small enough that the outcome of a project or issue really can turn based on who shows up to a meeting. Sometimes, these meetings where decisions are made in front of the public can go on for a very long time. I’ve been asked so many times, what would it take to get young people to show up to meetings, and once there to make a public comment?
One barrier for young professionals might be that these so-called community meetings might be just one big question mark: what are they? What should you expect? And why do we have them in the first place? Thankfully, Ginny Brideau, a vice president at a community relations consultancy who has organized public meetings for over 10 years, wrote this primer a few years ago about what to expect (and suggestions for how to behave) at a community meeting. This should be required reading in a high school civics class.
But Ginny will be the first to admit that there are a lot of meetings you could attend. Most of us do not have the time and passion or need to attend all of them. Anyone who has heard Santa Monica city council meetings on KCRW know that they are long. Regardless of whether you’re tuning in or watching it on CityTV via livestream, it’s impossible to know when the topic you’re interested in will be discussed since they sometimes go out of order. And worse yet, you could be stuck there until 10 pm, 11 pm, or even 2 am. Participating in a governance structure like this is daunting and really keeps out everyone but the most dedicated (or privileged).
There’s nothing quite as discouraging for someone who shows up to a City Council or other public meeting ready to discuss an issue near and dear to their heart – only to be stuck frustrated as issue after issue gets discussed. And the points brought up for discussion may be over decisions made long ago, but somebody feels they need to bring it up again anyway for no good reason – talk about frustrating. By the time their issue comes up, the governing body is exhausted and the interested party may already be at home.
So, when I read about the suggestion my friend Lindsey Ganson, the chief operating officer at Transportation Alternatives in NYC, made last summer about expanding participation in local neighborhood boards by holding meetings of just one hour, I had to float it around:
I think the community board model could be wildly improved if the meetings were limited to exactly one hour. The prospect of an endless meeting crowded with tangents and bureaucracy keeps people from coming out and speaking up. I think if people knew they could show up, get informed and participate without losing three hours to process and pomp, more people would be involved, more things would get done and fewer New Yorkers would feel alienated by the process of local government. If a topic takes too long: table it, make another meeting where that’s addressed, and move on. Yes, it’d mean more meetings, but it’d mean better meetings that are more accessible to more New Yorkers.
The idea of shorter meetings doesn’t necessarily address the second question: how to get people to make a public comment. But we should talk about that another time.
So what do you think? Would shorter meetings, with fewer topics, entice more people to come out and discuss topics that will impact the future of Santa Monica? Or would the increased number of meetings just lead to a confused and cluttered calendar?