Would your community be better off if your city council met at the local Starbucks?
The answer is almost certainly yes. Compared to people in other states, few Californians talk to their neighbors and work together with them to solve local problems. But the most natural forums to meet with neighbors on community challenges – local meetings of the city council or school boards – aren’t designed to encourage conversation among citizens.
Walk into a council chamber or school board meeting room in your town, and you’ll likely see rows of chairs facing some sort of raised dais or stage, where the council members or board members sit. Essentially, city council chambers are laid out like church, and, as in church, you’re not supposed to talk too much. So it’s not surprising that fewer and fewer Americans bother to go to city council meetings (or, for that matter, to church).
So where do people go? They go to places where they feel comfortable, where they can eat and drink, where tables and chairs are arranged in ways that encourage conversation.
In my San Gabriel Valley community, there are so many people spending time sitting and talking at the three local Starbucks that it’s often hard to get a table. Great bars and restaurants always seem full. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to find an empty seat at our local ice cream parlor, Fosselman’s in Alhambra.
Rarely have I had this problem at city council or school board meetings.
Ask yourself if the following sounds like how public meetings are conducted in your community: The big decisions are made in closed session, and when the council or board members face a difficult challenge, they spend most of the time sniping and immersed in personal rivalries. The written agendas handed out are long and hard to understand. Turnout among citizens is low, unless something has made the public mad and so many angry people show up that it’s impossible to conduct a useful meeting.
And those who come to speak tend to be regulars, many of them nutty gadflies, whom everyone tunes out. (They prove the municipal wisdom that that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who don’t go to council meetings, and those who go and probably shouldn’t.)
In my experience as a reporter, meaningful conversations between citizens do sometimes take place during meetings, but this talk occurs in corners, just outside the chambers in the hallway, or in common space. I’ve learned a lot from listening to the whispers back and forth in the open space at the very back of the Los Angeles City Council chambers.
When I visited the Clovis school board last year, a few parents talked about a problem teacher as they stood in the back right corner, out of earshot of the board members up front. At Santa Monica’s council meetings, many people don’t go into the council chambers – but instead sit outside and watch on video feeds so they can talk with their fellow citizens.
This is the point in the column when earnest Bay Area types jump on Twitter to tell us that they are developing cool new technologies to help citizens engage their local government online. But precious little thought has been given to how to redesign public spaces so that council chambers and boardrooms are foremost places for people to gather and talk.
So make your council chamber like Starbucks. Take out the old fixed benches and seating. Set up tables and chairs and nice couches. Have a bar for serving coffee and healthy snacks and maybe even beer and wine. (I’m a teetotaler, but I don’t know how an elected official could summon the courage to grapple with California cities’ outsized pension problems without a slug of Jim Beam.) And then take the council or board members off the dais and put them in a corner of the chambers – the way you might position a piano player in a hotel lobby. The pols would be miked just loud enough to be heard around the room, but not so loud as to overwhelm any conversations.
Of course, a Starbucks vibe might raise all kinds of hackles among people like me – civic types and journalists. Too many of us treat local government as if it were a civic religion requiring highly regulated, church-like public gatherings. So we should loosen up. California is way too interesting to have its public meetings governed by stuffy Yankee mores.
It’s time to make our public meetings as comfortable as your favorite coffee shop. Imagine grabbing a drink, putting your feet up, and tuning out the rezoning hearing in the corner while you and your neighbor trade gossip, and maybe figure out how to turn that vacant lot into a community garden.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square (www.zocalopublicsquare.org).