Monthly Archives: February 2016

City Council Preview for Feb 23 and Some Thoughts on Citizen Engagement and Open Government

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sity hall

The Denton City Council is set to meet today at 1pm. What was originally scheduled as just a Work Session has now turned into part-Special Called Session at the request of a council member in order to reconsider a vote made last week. You can see the full agenda with backup here.  Here’s what we will be discussing…

RECONSIDERATION OF VOTE FOR JOE RIVAS HOUSE
I’ve already addressed this issue late last week with this post. We will be hearing, discussing, and voting on that issue again at the request of a council member who wants to change their vote.

CONSIDERATION OF BAN ON MOBILE PHONE USE IN CARS
You might recall the council taking up this issue a couple years ago. What resulted was our current ban on texting while driving. One council member has requested that we visit this issue again and today will be the start of that conversation.

STRATEGIC PLAN, OPEN DATA, and BLOOMBERG’s “WHAT WORKS CITIES” PROJECT
As you may recall, Denton was selected as only a handful of cities nationwide to participate in the Bloomberg Philanthropies “What Works Cities” initiative to pilot ideas of how cities get smarter using data, analytics, and technology. We’ll hear an update on this project.

CITY COUNCIL RULES OF PROCEDURES
Finally, because some council members have asked for a discussion on a few items relating to the City Council Rules of Procedures, the city staff has forwarded a series of recommendations for us to consider. Some of the questions that have been asked are:

- should a city council member be able to attend a closed session of a city board or commission

- because we recently changed the rules to allow for an “open mic” section of the council meeting whereby any citizen can speak for up to 4 minutes without having previously signed up, how that process interacts with another existing opportunity for citizens to sign up ahead of time needs to be addressed (where in some cases, the person who signs up ahead of time has to wait until the end of the meeting while the person who didn’t sign up gets to go first)

- we recently changed the rules for citizen comments to be increased from 3 to 4 minutes. Now that we have had time to ascertain the effectiveness of that recent change, this may be part of the discussion

The nature of the posting and odd, un-requested changes and suggestions to the policy quite understandably caused concern with many people. To be sure, council has yet to discuss any of this. Today’s meeting will be the first time we have had the chance to dig into these issues – there won’t even be a vote on any of this tonight.

So while I agree with many of the concerns being raised on this topic, it does reveal what I see as a misdirection of focus on the city council meeting as a primary, or even effective means of citizen participation in local democracy. In fact, the most progressive cities who are really thinking through the very real problem of apathetic citizen involvement at the local level are all saying the same thing: it’s time to move beyond the old paradigm that citizen involvement happens in the context of official public meetings.

If you think about it, so much focus on the city council meeting as the primary vehicle for citizen engagement misses the crucial point that such meetings are typically significant barriers to citizen engagement and are, by their very nature, exclusionary. After all, this sort of “participation” requires citizens to actually show up to a meeting – this excludes people whose work schedules conflict, this excludes people who have to take care of kids or the elderly, and it is often an unrealistic ask for the vast majority of  our citizens who live quite busy, productive lives. And, just as important, this sort of involvement is just plain intimidating to the average citizen.

This point is absolutely crucial for policy makers to understand. I would be doing a great disservice as a representative of the city and my council district if I somehow equated the people and comments at a city council meeting with how our entire citizenry (or even a majority) feel about any particular issue. Of course, those showing up are an important part of that equation, but in a growing city of 120,000, confusing the 20 people who take the time to chime in at a meeting on a substantial city matter as “the voice of the citizens” is perilous for representative democracy.

It’s why cities and city council representatives should always look for new ways of getting citizen input and fostering genuine citizen involvement that are more inclusive, accessible, and scalable for a 21st century democracy.

This is why I was the first city council member to utilize social media, to use a website to post information about council meetings and my thoughts on important topics, all with the understanding that a city our size needed to utilize technology to scale our two-way communication efforts. This is why I initiated the creation of the Council Committee on Citizen Engagement to continually tweak the ways our city is hearing from, involving, and interacting with our citizenry. This is why I encouraged our city to pursue new technological avenues of citizen engagement, including a recent initiation of Denton’s Open Data policy and platform. This is why I’ve brought our city’s tech and startup community to the table to help us make democracy better. These initiatives have put Denton on the cutting edge of government transparency, even recently earning us the distinction of participating in the Bloomberg Philanthropies “What Works Cities” project.

And while technology is an essential tool to 21st century democracy, it can’t replace good old fashioned face to face democracy that takes place in every day life. It means rethinking our notion of “meetings” to include engagement opportunities in your home, in the neighborhood, in the coffee shop, or even at your local bar. I’ve held countless meetings on our city’s most controversial topics in just these places.

When someone asks me how they can be effective in getting their ideas in front of local policy makers, the very last thing I would recommend is to show up and speak at a council meeting. The most effective form of communicating with council members often takes place in unusual  settings: at the coffee shop, while swimming at the city pool, in line to pick up my kid from school, over a beer at a show, or while watching our kids play at the park.

This is the virtue of local democracy. It is supremely accessible.

So while I agree that we don’t need to exasperate things by too much tightening of council meeting rules, I also think we don’t need to focus on that particular vehicle of participation as the only or even the most effective or important for citizen engagement. If we are really serious about bettering citizen engagement in the 21st century, we need to start thinking beyond the walls of city hall.

As always, if you have any thoughts, questions, or concerns, contact me at kevin.roden@cityofdenton.com or 940-206-5239.

Tell City Council to Save Joe’s Home

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joe

When the apartment Joe Rivas was living in was purchased by DME in order to make room for a new substation, it became the legal responsibility of DME (under state law) to provide adequate relocation expenses for all affected renters.

If you’ve not met Joe, you are missing out. He’s been around Denton as long as I remember. An advocate for others with disabilities, a children’s book author, and a frequent advisor to the city and UNT on accommodation issues related to those confined to wheelchairs, Joe is a constant servant for others in his community.

So when Joe’s apartment was purchased, one of his main concerns was how he could find a new apartment in close proximity to the university and the places he is now able to get to on his scooter. DME worked overtime and with great compassion and creativity to find a way to accommodate Joe’s unique needs. DME had previously acquired property in close proximity as the result of another transmission line project, including a house. After crunching the numbers on getting that house remodeled and accessible for someone like Joe, DME concluded that finding a way to get Joe in his own house would be both the financially wise choice and the most compassionate choice. After all, this is how we want our city treating its most vulnerable – isn’t it?

joes house

After consulting with council and receiving unanimous direction to move forward with the plans (including at least two unanimous votes), it came as quite the surprise when two council members became very critical of the plan this past Tuesday when it came down to officially vote to get the house in Joe’s hands.

What happened? Why on earth would a council member oppose such an idea?

A guy from Sanger named Sam Alexander (who is a long-time complainer about everything DME does) contacted Council members Keely Briggs and Kathleen Wazny and apparently convinced them to fight against this thing. Council Member Briggs voted against it on Tuesday and now it seems Council Member Wazny was confused about her vote and now wants to vote against it, too. So as a result the council is set to reconsider this issue once again so that Council Member Wazny can join Council Member Briggs in voting to keep Joe out of this home.

This is simply unbelievable.

Of course, Joe is concerned – he was planning a move soon and has no backup plans. Here’s Joe taking to Facebook tonight asking his friends for help and asking them to contact City Council to save his house.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 8.57.31 PM

Let Joe know that you want him to get into his new home – contact the entire council here and ask them to vote to keep Joe in his new house.  Tell city council to stand with this great Denton citizen and resist the temptation this time to do the bidding of Sanger Sam and his counterproductive vision for this city where he doesn’t even live.

City Manager’s Recommendation on 3rd Party Consultant to Review Renewable Denton Plan

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farm_SMALLThe Denton City Manager, George Campbell, released a memo to the City Council today outlining his recommendation on a possible 3rd party consultant to review the Renewable Denton Plan as forwarded by DME.  The City Council is set to discuss these recommendations as part of our Work Session meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Click here to read the memo.

As you will see from this memo, the city manager recommendation is limited in scope and in line with the majority of council who recommended a narrowly tailored review of the plan within a very short timeline.

Renewable Denton is one of the most ambitious renewable energy plans in the nation and has plans to scale our renewable portfolio from 40% to 70% by 2019, reduce emissions associated with our energy portfolio by 74%, divest us from a coal power plant, and lower our overall natural gas consumption by 37%.

I look forward to hearing the results of this review and fully anticipate the consultant will recommend the Renewable Denton Plan as forwarded by DME.

NextGen Climate, the nation’s leading advocacy group calling on cities around the country to get serious about tackling climate change, is working overtime to convince our nation’s city leaders to commit to pursuing 50% renewables by 2030. That’s 15 years from now. Denton is going all the way to 70% by the end of 2019.

I look forward to moving this historic plan to a vote and acting quickly to implement the Renewable Denton Plan in Denton.