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How Engaged Are You, Santa Monica?

City Hall

A year ago this month, the Santa Monica City Council approved a community civic engagement strategy, which is an issue near and dear to us at Santa Monica Next, as you know from our Vote Local campaign last fall.

The problem: Santa Monica is home to about 90,000 people and a wide range of views. More often than not, however, many of those people are not represented at community meetings. Last week, the City issued an update [PDF] on the program and there seems to be some progress.

From the Santa Monica Daily Press:

If you’ve been to a council meeting recently, you’ll see a lot of older residents — often the same ones — despite the fact that a quarter of Santa Monicans are between the ages of 20 and 35.

The discrepancy could have something to do with the fact that, according to a survey financed by City Hall, younger Santa Monicans are more likely to be content with the direction the city is heading. But city officials are concerned that it’s also tied to the medium through which they are communicating.

We want to know how you have experienced Santa Monica’s drive to get a more diverse group of residents involved in local issues? Have you gotten more engaged in the last year? If so, around what issues? If not, what barriers do you face?

City Hall hoped to balance things out a bit with its civic engagement plan, which focused on a more robust communication strategy meant to compliment the City’s more traditional outreach methods.

It led to the formation of the People’s Academy, an ongoing opportunity for locals to get better acquainted with how City Hall is run and who runs it. To date, the report says, 214 people have applied to participate in the People’s Academy and, as of October, 40 have graduated from the short program.

Then, there is Santa Monica Talks, a series of mixers held by the City Manager’s office to help inform people about current goings-on in the world of local government. The events are a bit like cocktail parties (without the booze, of course) that include a short presentation by City Manager Rod Gould about the state of Santa Monica’s city government, including challenges, successes, and hopes for the future.

This year saw a 63 percent increase in attendance, according to the report, over the last time Santa Monica Talks was held in 2012. And, about 28 percent of those who attended — at least the ones who reported their ages — were between 20 and 45 years old, according to the City’s report.

Santa Monica Festival attendees pose for pictures and tell us what Santa Monica is to them.

“To cultivate new types of civic participation, a component of the CCES [Community Civic Engagement Strategy] focuses on providing opportunities for people to share their personal experiences, particularly why they choose to live in Santa Monica,” the report reads.

You may have seen a chalkboard around town that says, “Santa Monica is…” on top with many answers scrawled in chalk below. There was also the “Santa Monica is…” photo project at the Santa Monica Festival. Guests were invited to have their picture taken and then printed with their responses to the question.

At Farmers Markets and other public gatherings, people were invited to share their thoughts about what Santa Monica means to them.

There is more to come.

“Next up is to create an event series to bring together community members over food and drinks to discuss broad topics about community + urban life in the 21st century,” according to the report. “Also, the tech community has expressed interest in hosting a hack-a-thon, a multi-day event to develop solutions to community problems using technology.”

Technological innovation, officials hope, could really boost the number and variety of people participating in local government.

For example, the report says that in 2015, people will be able to submit a request to speak (a chit) at a City Council meeting electronically. Currently, people wishing to speak have to sign up the old-fashioned way, with paper and pen at the meeting.

Staff is also looking at ways to make tracking specific issues less onerous and time consuming through a technological platform.

Still, officials want to assure people that new strategies can coexist with more traditional methods of engagement.

“A technological platform would complement, not supplant, other non-technology-based ways to connect community members with staff and elected officials,” officials said. “The goal of the CCES is to provide a well-rounded set of civic engagement strategies so local government remains accessible to a broad range of community members.”

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