By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. July 27, 2015

“How can residents better talk to each other on issues of public policy?” That question stayed with me when I left the City Council in 2004.

When people speak at the meetings of their local elected officials, they are clearly addressing the ultimate decision makers. But they are also addressing other community members listening in person, on television, or in the case of the City Council, on KCRW radio.

Especially because our City Council, School Board and Rent Control Board (but not the College Board!) meetings are broadcast on CityTV, and rebroadcast many times, we have an enormously powerful tool to communicate with each other.

But despite this, I left office feeling something was missing. It’s one thing for a member of the public to speak at a City Council meeting. But speakers there are limited to two minutes per item (three when I was on the Council). Depending upon an issue’s depth and complexity, that rule can be extremely limiting.

In 2008, when the Council voted to cut back public input from three minutes to two minutes per person per item, part of the rationale was that people can also communicate with the Council via email, snail mail and voice mail outside of meetings. While that is true with the Council members, that “outside-of-meeting” communication doesn’t get shared with the rest of the community.

Why is this so important?

When we hear each other, sometimes we learn that others hold similar positions to our own, when we thought we were alone. We also understand why others feel differently than we do, learning from our diversity. And, by virtue of communicating for free with thousands via local cable TV, we are able to use our public testimony as a grassroots organizing tool, strengthening our local democracy, and making the spreading of ideas more merit-based, than who can afford to buy election mailers.

But even when we had three minutes per item, there was a limited ability for residents to respond to each other, and for the Council to benefit from hearing that interchange.

That is the gap I left office wanting to close.

Public Electronic Network (PEN)

Santa Monica once had a tool to close that gap called the Public Electronic Network (PEN). Our nation’s first municipally sponsored interactive electronic BBS (Bulletin Board System), PEN was launched in February, 1989. Among its initial objectives was to enhance communication, increase a sense of community and provide an equitable distribution of communication resources to all residents. For some time PEN did exactly that, allowing a large number of residents to talk to each other about upcoming issues, and for their elected officials to observe, and sometimes participate in, that dialogue.

At its apex, approximately 5,000 residents had PEN accounts. But eventually PEN was shut down when users (including elected officials) fled in the face of abusive and bullying language on the part of some participants, a problem endemic to this kind of medium.

Electronic Public Comment on Agenda Items

What I wanted to create after I left office was a web site where the individual agenda items for our local governmental agency meetings are posted one-by-one, with a blog comment option following each item so community members could comment directly about upcoming proposals, in advance of the meeting at which they would be decided. In this way, community members could speak to each other about specific agenda items in advance of the public hearing, and decision makers could observe that dialogue. By keeping the focus on each separate agenda item, moderation to keep people on topic would also be easier.

In early 2005, I went to a few local friends with IT experience to see if they could design such a web site, but it never happened. Making things more complicated was that unlike agendas for the City Council and Rent Control Board, which have individual links on the City website for each agenda item, the agendas for the School District and College were (and still are) single PDF documents for all items, so that its not possible to electronically post individual agenda items for those agencies.

Santa Monica Government Facebook Group

On November 5, 2012, the day before our local municipal elections that year, I woke up unsatisfied with the campaign season’s high ratio of simplistic slogans and expensive direct mailers versus in-depth and informed community debate.

Working with the social media tools available to me, I created the Santa Monica Government Facebook group, short for “Santa Monica Government, Politics, Policies and People”, which is how you can find it on Facebook. Critical to me was that, unlike other sites, this would not be organizationally sponsored, nor based upon any particular point of view, other than I wanted to finally “bridge that gap” of communication among us.

The group’s explicit Charter/Purpose is, “to discuss the policies and politics of the Santa Monica City Government, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, Santa Monica College and Santa Monica Rent Control Board, and the policies and politics of county, state and federal agencies as they directly apply to Santa Monica,” and, “to promote greater community dialogue and understanding, to be inclusive and a safe place for a range of viewpoints, and to fill a very specific gap in our community, to provide an on-line place for community members to talk about the affairs of our governmental agencies.”

Eligibility is “primarily for current Santa Monica residents, but also open to other community members who may not live in the city, but who work in, or own a business or property in Santa Monica; attend school/college in Santa Monica; serve on a local government advisory board, commission or task force; or are county, state and federal elected officials who represent Santa Monica, and their staff.”

How has it worked? The group boasts more than 750 members (without any widespread outreach), and I’ve only had to unsubscribe five people who weren’t willing to follow the posting guidelines. But most importantly, it features respectful participation from a wide cross-section of Santa Monicans and includes many of our local elected officials.”

To make the group a safe place for diverse views, I’ve strongly moderated it according to its charter/purpose and posting guidelines, which are meant to promote civility and inclusivity, but also dialogue that doesn’t unnecessarily bifurcate the same topic over multiple discussion threads, nor monopolize screen space by a few individuals. Given the format/layout of Facebook, such moderation is often more art than science.

If you fit the eligibility criteria, please feel free to visit the group and ask to be subscribed. If it’s clear from your Facebook page (and/or a web search) that you fit the eligibility guidelines, and/or I have you in my Santa Monica voter registration database, I will add you.

Time for PEN 2.0?

Since the end of PEN, the City of Santa Monica has increasingly used electronic means to gather public input on a variety of topics. But there still is no pre-meeting, public comment option for actual agenda items. On the Santa Monica Government Facebook group, I often post links to an upcoming City Council or Planning Commission agenda item. But that’s only a small approximation of a website designed specifically to receive such input on all agenda items.

Given the high level of civic participation we strive for locally, its time for the City to visit the idea of an electronic forum for public comment on each individual agenda item. The more tools we give our community to learn from each other, the stronger we can be.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.


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