Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Marin [County] oversight panel rates entities on public engagement

Every municipality and public agency in Marin should develop a public engagement plan or guidelines, the Marin grand jury says in one of two reports that focus on the need for local government to engage citizens effectively.
For its report, “Public Engagement in Marin,” the grand jury conducted online surveys of the county of Marin and all 11 of Marin’s municipalities as well as the public. The survey generated 451 public responses.
“Marin’s municipalities and the county of Marin face increasingly significant issues needing public support for resolution, such as the lack of affordable housing and unfunded post-retirement liabilities,” the grand jury writes in this report. “Building partner-like relationships between these agencies and their communities through public engagement may provide the support our agencies need.”
In a related report, “2016-17 Web Transparency Report Card Update: Bringing Marin County’s Local Governments to Light,” the grand jury rates the web transparency of 130 Marin public entities: 12 municipalities, 20 school districts, 63 special districts, 34 joint powers authorities and one rail district.
Of these, the grand jury found that 76 local agencies have improved their websites since a previous audit by the 2015-16 grand jury.
This year’s grand jury gave 57 of the entities a letter grade of B or better, compared with 34 that scored that highly in the previous audit. Corte Madera, Sausalito, Mill Valley and Larkspur all received A’s for their web transparency. Ross received the lowest grade, a C.
Both Corte Madera and Sausalito were complimented for their rapid improvement. In the previous audit, Sausalito received a C- and Corte Madera received an F.
The grand jury found “there is a disconnect between how agencies rate their public engagement efforts and how the public views their efforts.”
The grand jury stated that while most public entities in Marin believe they are doing a good job, “the public perceives a need for more and better engagement opportunities, including follow-up.”
The grand jury reports that Marin, Mill Valley, Novato, San Rafael and the county of Marin have formal public engagement plans.
It says that smaller municipalities do not necessarily have the need, the budget or the will to develop a formal plan, but adds “that agencies do not need to start their public engagement efforts by crafting a formal PE Plan.
“Instead, an agency can gather their existing engagement strategies in a simple document, which can evolve over time with community input,” the grand jury writes. “The process of creating the guidelines does not need to be expensive nor take a lot of resources.”
Unlike most Marin municipalities its size, Sausalito is in the process of developing a public engagement plan. In February, the city of Sausalito added communications director to the job title of its librarian, Abbot Chambers.
“The public engagement plan is really an outgrowth of that strategy, a formal codification of what we’ve already started doing,” Chambers said.
“Public engagement really has to be part of everything we do, every step of the way in our thought process, when we’re making decisions that affect the community,” Chambers said. “It’s good that the grand jury has raised the issue as something that every community should think about carefully.”
Mill Valley, the smallest Marin municipality with a public engagement plan, developed its plan in 2014 and created a new position, “community engagement supervisor,” to oversee the effort.
Mill Valley City Manager Jim McCann said Mill Valley was one of the first municipalities in Marin to begin webcasting its council meetings and now allows viewers to comment during live meetings by email.
“We’ve always had a very engaged community, one interested in what is going on and participating in our processes,” McCann said, “so we have tried to improve how we share information.”
The grand jury stated, “Local government efforts at public engagement often occur as one-time activities focused on one immediate and controversial issue.”
It added, however, that, “Public engagement is not something done to simply ‘calm the public’ over controversial issues. Public engagement must be used early and effectively to build trust, achieve community buy-in and support for agency decisions with less contentiousness.”
The grand jury stated that public entities should also collaborate with community-based organizations to help reach traditionally disenfranchised groups. It said such groups are often unaware of issues likely to affect them until last-minute decision-making.
The grand jury found that while all public entities are making use of standard methods of communications — such as public meetings and notices, websites and email — many others are also embracing social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Nextdoor, as well as texting.
The grand jury stated, however, that the public was often unaware of the availability of these alternative communication channels. More than a quarter of respondents to the grand jury’s online survey reported not knowing whether their local government agencies provided any avenues at all to engage the public.
The grand jury recommended that public entities be more proactive in advertising the outlets.
July 2, 2017
Marin Independent Journal
By Richard Halstead

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