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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Metalhead's big adventure in civics

For the first time in 18 years, I attended a City Council meeting.  The last visit was for a college class project.   I attended last night to support people from the newly formed local Organize for America grassroots group and to see what might have changed since 1991. 

The group and I stayed for the first hour of the meeting, at which time the "open communication" to the Council had ended.   After the public had the chance to address the Council, a fairly standard, dry, "routine business" meeting continued (old meeting minutes approval, infrastructure issues, petitions from individuals, etc.).  

Here is how the room looked at the start:  The Council, at the head of the room, were four men, one woman, all white and at least 15 years older than the city's resident's average age.  The city itself has around 80 to 85,000 people with the ethnic composition split 50/40 between Hispanics and Whites, according to City-Data.com (have some fun checking out the info on your own town/city or a nearby larger city)

Somewhere between 40 and 50 people were in the room during the hour -- it's an estimate as people were regularly traveling in and out of the meeting room.  Oddly,  the composition of the audience more closely matched the composition of the city.  I figure that this bodes well for new faces planning on running for the Council in the coming months

At the start of the "open communication" section of the agenda, 10 people queued up to address the Council with each speaker given no more than 3 minutes.  

In California, the Brown Act of 2003, pages 19, 20, 59 and 60, does not state the maximum length of each speech nor how long the entire "open communication" part of the meeting may last.  However, given what folks outside of our group brought up (gas to gas/electric hybrid leafblower exchange, congrats on conversion of train track land to public park, greetings and prayer offered by the Salvation Army, a local hardware store petition - - about what, I could not tell - - and other complaints from people the Council knew by name - - my guess - - due to frequent attendance and outspokenness), three minutes per speech is plenty generous.

With the five grassroots members who spoke, each was on message, passionate and well informed. Each addressed the decline of graffiti removal and prevention even with a bigger budget versus the increased police budget yet decreased presence.  This issue is most evident in the historical part of the city which, like what happened in Lower Manhattan but on a smaller scale, had been transformed many years ago into a retail/residence style neighborhood.  

By having half the 10 speakers address the same issue with passion, intelligence and some deference to the Council's need to balance ongoing city development and the concerns of involved citizens, I'm pretty convinced the Council will place this subject on a future agenda.

After our group left the meeting, we discussed other ways to get our issue to be added to a future meeting's agenda.   With all noble notions of changing the world with grand gestures aside, the saying "it's not about what you know, but whom you know" applied here, as some in the group knew some who work for the city and may be able to get the issue onto a future agenda.

The true path to change starts with building bridges between agents of change and those in positions of authority.   Today, graffiti removal.  Tomorrow, who knows?  The next group meeting is later this month and I'm already looking forward to it.

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