Brea Envisions: Good News Bad News.

Last Saturday’s blog, “Brea Envisions Needs Midcourse Correction” highlighting city staff’s clever usurping of control of the project triggered immediate damage control from Brea’s Community Development Director. First thing Monday morning the following email was sent to all Brea Envisions Steering Committee members and various staff involved in the project. That afternoon it was forwarded to Council.

Subject: Brea Envisions and blog criticism this weekend.

Good Morning Envision Committee Members-

As you may be aware, this weekend a local blogger has taken issue with the Brea Envisions project, process, City staff, and the consultant team and published comments in his blog. We wanted to let you know we take these comments and expressed concerns very seriously because the integrity of this process and our relationship with you and the community are of paramount importance to our work.

brea envisionsWe want you to know how much we value your participation and leadership in the Brea Envisions project. As staff, we have been following what we believe to be the Committee’s established protocol for staff/Committee interaction and collaboration. To date, we believe we have worked to implement your vision and ideas between each Committee meeting, moving forward with the production of materials and coordination of project details. Our comments at Committee meetings, either reflect our understanding of the Committee’s past direction or offer our professional insights to demonstrate our support for your decisions or inform you of any challenges or limitations (e.g. achieving goals in alternate ways, meeting expressed schedule goals, keeping within established budgets, etc.). This process has and can continue to include refining the website and tech tools as may be desired as your efforts continue to unfold. We also feel very confident that you are capable and have demonstrated your resolve to communicate when you disagree with anything or feel a different approach is necessary. And while we believe the comments contained in the blog are without the benefit of this context and do not resonate with our experience with you, we feel it is important at this time that we check in with you to make sure we are not missing something.

As your staff and resource team we want to confirm your direction. We want to support and provide tools you need for this effort. We have understood it is the preference of the Committee that staff provide guidance as to best practices and to have for you information which is based on your direction to respond to at your meetings, rather than expecting the Committee to develop content and process from scratch. Given the assertions made it is good practice to step back and confirm the Committee is comfortable with this process or, if not, you have the ability to express modifications the group can discuss and consider. We are eager and interested in discussing this issue with you to ensure the Brea Envisions effort continues to reflect the community’s perspective and we’ll tee that up as quickly as the Committee desires.

In closing, my apologies for disrupting your weekend. We felt strongly you needed to be made aware of the public comments posted and to know we continue to be committed to make certain an accurate understanding of Brea Envisions and the Committee’s great work is put forward, correcting what we view as an unfortunate, misleading, and potentially damaging representation. Staff looks forward to seeing you soon and checking in with you on the Committee process. Please feel free to contact me if you should have any questions or comments.

Okay, who talks like that?

Seriously, how many times did you stop, reread a sentence or two and continue… still not sure you fully grasped what you just read? It’s called, among other things, city speak. This jargon laden language is the hallmark of government publications, documents and correspondence.

City speak, first and foremost, has evolved to make listeners/readers feel immediately inferior. Second, it relies on cumbersome compound sentences designed to even further confuse and intimidate the listener/reader.

Classic damage control.

Anyone witnessing the committee meeting, I’m confident, would come away with virtually the same impressions I did. The observations and criticisms I made in the last blog struck too close to home and demanded that an immediate response be made.

Sadly, it has backfired. The retreat into city speak and attempts to justify the status quo do more to validate my position than deny it.

Counterattack.

The most egregious comment in the email is when he wraps up by describing Brea Matters as “an unfortunate, misleading, and potentially damaging representation.”

Unfortunate, perhaps, but for whom? If it stifles staff’s attempt to hijack Brea Envisions and puts the project back on the course Council intended, how is that unfortunate?

Misleading? I’m confident you would have come to the same conclusions.

Damaging? Only if Council turns a blind eye to this and the status quo is allowed to continue unchecked.

The hidden message.

Buried in this measured response is the suggestion that staff would like to know if any committee members share similar feelings about Brea Envisions as those expressed in Brea Matters.

Go ahead, read the email again. Did you find it? Hint: it’s in the third paragraph.

Feeling as I do, that committee members sincerely desire to make a positive contribution to Brea Envisions, I’m confident they all read through the email several times and discovered the request to share their feelings – pro or con.

Besides chatting amongst themselves, what options do they have? Do you think, for a moment, they or anyone on staff would post a comment on the blog?

Best case scenario for Brea Envisions?

Having read the blog and the damage control email, Council could put Brea Envisions on their agenda for an open discussion. They could ask the City Manager to interview committee members for their side of the story.

Council has the final say, they have many options if they would just choose to exercise them.

Whatever Council decides to do, I hope they remember they can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking that created them.

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Brea Envisions Needs Midcourse Correction.

Brea EnvisionsCompared to the 121 pieces posted to Brea Matters over 5 years, this has been the most difficult blog to write. Here’s why. I do not want to diminish or dismiss the contribution of those volunteering as Brea Envisions Steering Committee members or Ambassadors.

One of Brea’s great strengths, for decades, has been a consistent outpouring of volunteerism. Brea Envisions is only the most recent beneficiary. Brea schools have long benefitted from the hard work and largesse of PTAs. Youth sports have thrived thanks, in large part, to the generosity of the community.

Around 1996 then Mayor Glenn Parker launched the Mayor’s Annual Youth Award helping to instill the spirit of volunteerism into countless young Breans. Brea’s faith based community and service organizations have touched every aspect of life in Brea.

Where did the problem start?

With the best of intentions, Council launched Brea Envisions with the stipulation that no current or former elected or appointed officials could be on the Steering Committee. This was designed to prohibit the committee from being peppered with the same old faces (Old Guard) in an effort to overcome the legacy of manipulation that has blemished every effort at public engagement in recent history.

They forgot one thing, creating a means of continued oversight. Beyond the occasional self aggrandizing updates they’ve been given, Council has no real clue how leadership has evolved. Convinced to not select a Chair, the Brea Envisions Steering Committee essentially handed staff the keys.

Supported by their very expensive consultant MIG and their subcontractors, staff has taken over, concocting a long range planning project hardly touched by the very people they’re hired to serve.

What was my first clue?

Brea EnvisionsA sparse, poorly conceived social media effort and a cookie cutter website that was difficult to navigate and barely mobile friendly. Then I heard about this all purpose hashtag, #breaenvisions, that would be the linchpin tying everything together and triggering a viral response.

Newsflash: going viral is not a strategy, it’s a phenomenon. Jimmy Fallon’s Thursday Tweets create so much traffic they become trending topics because Fallon has 38.4 million followers and his staff understands how to engage their fans. City of Brea has 4,800+ followers interested in traffic updates and Amber alerts. Do the math.

The Brea Envisions website, an app/template from consultant subcontractor Crowdbrite copyrighted in 2015, is an off-the-rack one-size-fits-all “engagement” tool sold to city after city. As I said, it is far from user friendly on mobile devices and almost impossible to determine if or when any new content is added.

Did you take the survey? Did you know there is a new survey now and you can take it too? I didn’t think so.

A third of the survey questions ask for narrative input. Yeah, you have to type sentences and stuff. Someone explain to me how this anecdotal input will be translated to quantifiable data. Plus, as of this writing, only 60 folks have taken the survey. Many questions are phrased, “What are your three favorite…” which leaves zero room for constructive criticism.

This overly Saccharin Pollyanna approach has been the hallmark of that bogus old City Manager Survey that Council used to justify giving Tim O’Donnell raise after raise.

Brea Envisions: Trust but verify.

Brea EnvisionsI checked in with a couple of Brea Envisions committee members, off the record. As promised, they’ll remain anonymous… but they shared that they couldn’t remember the committee having any influence in originating anything relating to the website or social media.

Since Steering Committee meetings are, by law, open to the public and anyone may attend, which Council confirmed during their Study Session the night prior, I decided that sitting in on one was the next logical step.

Brea EnvisionsLast Wednesday evening I went to the third floor conference room, picked an unobtrusive seat to ensure my presence wouldn’t have any impact on the meeting. I stood, for a brief moment, and took a photo with my phone, then sat quietly for the rest of the meeting.

As the meeting started, a quick head count showed that attending were 11 committee members and 8 city staff members. The meeting was run and dominated by staff who easily filled 80% of the airtime. Most of their rambling presentation seemed designed to convince committee members how amazingly well staff was succeeding every step of the way. Near the end of the meeting the committee did interject a few comments. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Brea EnvisionsA detailed “Social Media Promotion Schedule” was shared which consisted of posting on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram twice a week. (Not one of those accounts is for Brea Envisions!)

Yup, a whole six posts a week! The plan is anchored on the assumption that all followers will “like” and share every item with their entire network. The plan will go viral!

Brea EnvisionsBusiness entities relying on social media for their company or personal brand, employ management apps (Hootsuite, IFTTT, TweetDeck etc.) and often post 50, 100, 200+ posts a day across a half dozen social media platforms. Do the math.

They also rely upon advanced analytics which allow them to know precisely how they’re influencing the market. I heard nothing of the sort shared with the committee.

Committee input mostly rebuffed.

When staff was challenged about there not being a dedicated Brea Envisions Facebook page, the answer was, “We decided that it would be potentially too confusing.”

Whoa. Wasn’t that the committee’s job? Doesn’t the Brea PD have their own site for recruiting? What about the Curtis Theater and Brea Gallery?

The heart of marketing, and that’s what this is folks, is built upon differentiation. Burying Brea Envisions in the city’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages is completely backwards. Don’t even get me started on their ridiculous use of Periscope to live stream video of the Ambassador training session. They got 2 viewers.

Committee comments were either greeted with rebuttal or the standard city speak, “We’ll look into that.” which often means waiting long enough that the comment is forgotten.

Time for Council to reassert itself.

There is much more of the racetrack still ahead of us than behind. If Council can find a way to take a more hands-on role in overseeing Brea Envisions without interfering with it being a project by the people, the interest, expertise, energy and enthusiasm of the volunteers will not be squandered.

Otherwise, Brea Envisions will join the ranks of so many other workshops, public discussions and charrettes that tapped the public only for validation and not direction.

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Council Meeting Triggers Rant.

Like a growing number of folks I watched last night’s Council meeting from the comfort of my easy chair. As I watched I slid ever closer to the edge of my seat and the comments I was barking at the TV got louder and louder. Okay, forewarned is forearmed. This is a rant and you can bail out now and we’ll still be friends.

What is Council really approving?

Council is elected to make decisions in the best interest of those they serve… the ones who voted for them and those that didn’t. So why do so many issues become so politicized?

Why doesn’t staff provide all the pros and cons, including verified factual information, allowing Council to come to their own conclusions? Why do I constantly hear, “I move to approve, as presented…” – and boom! Another rubber stamp on the status quo.

council rubberstamp

Between the medical marijuana zoning ordinance and the rather contentious conclusion to jacking up our tiered water rates, I’ve never heard so much convoluted legalese and city speak tossed about. And why?

To herd Council down a trail leading to an unedited approval of staff’s grand plan.

When is the law not the law?

When it doesn’t suit the desired results sought by Planning and the City Attorney. Case in point, the medical marijuana matter was concluded based, in part, on 65 year old unsubstantiated Reefer Madness propaganda masquerading as fact.

Worse yet, though clearly pointed out by Council member Vargas, the vote for final approval included approving language stating Council verified and attested that the “facts” in the ordinance are true and correct!

Either remove the un-vetted opinion from the “Recitals” or delete the statement putting Council on the hook as validating the true and factual nature of statements. They have no means of proving anything.

“NOW, THEREFORE, the City Council of the City of Brea ordains as follows: The City Council find that the facts set forth in the Recitals, Part A, of this Ordinance are true and correct.”

One or the other has to go or it is arguable that Council is lying. I don’t care which part is nuked, just pick one and delete it… now and forever.

Also, what is all this nonsense about interim vs. permanent ordinances? Clearly, according to one City Attorney, the only real difference is an interim ordinance is a short term solution and the other is permanent (subject to amendments, remember).

The conflicting opinion is that a permanent ordinance is more defensible because it is created based upon fact and not upon urgent circumstance. Fact? Really? Go back and read my last point.

How did this get through the Planning Commission?

By the slimmest of margins following a passionate plea from the public, lengthy discussion of purpose and process by three Commissioners (two Commissioners didn’t join the discussion) and a series of three separate motions.

But did Council have the Commission’s minutes in their information packet? No. Were Commissioners contacted by Council to discuss the issues? Not that I’m aware of.

Council was told by the City Attorney that having the Planning Commission minutes would be unhelpful, offering only a bare minimum of information. Further he recommended Council listen to the streaming audio recording of the Planning Commission meeting as a better resource.

If the Commission’s minutes are unhelpful, why do them?

Council and Planning Commission minutes are created to provide a meaningful account of the business conducted – they are the official public record of the meeting. Years from now, anyone should be able to access and review these minutes and should be able to reconstruct a reasonable account of what transpired.

I have been attempting to drive this point home for two years, with two City Clerks, two City Managers and three Council members.

Action minutes, for Council and Planning Commission, where city policy and law are created, fall miserably short of fulfilling their purpose as written public record.

Don’t use the excuse that we have streaming video we can refer to, who the hell does that? Provide a reasonable summary in writing. That’s really not too much to ask. If the summary leaves me with additional questions I can turn to the video for details, but let it be my choice.

Back on topic.

Having listened to the streaming audio file for the January 26 Planning Commission meeting, it is abundantly clear that the audio quality is intermittent at best with much content being unintelligible.

I’m told this is attributable to two things. One – Commission members need additional instruction on how to properly use the new equipment, and two – as is common practice with Council meetings, Communications Department staff should be present to monitor recording quality.

Okay, so the Planning Commission audio file is virtually useless to Council.

Last night’s rush to judgment ran roughshod over common sense for the sake of kicking the can down the road and clearing the agenda. In the future I wish Council would leave the politics out and make a more concerted effort to get it right the first time. Its damn poor policy to keep falling back on the excuse that it’s easy to amend stuff later should circumstances change.

Really, when has that ever happened?

Again, case in point, since the Central Park Village Brea project was approved, has Council revisited the CFD and Mello-Roos issues that were swept under the rug? No.

How many other open ended issues have disappeared into the fog of history? We can’t even go back and review past minutes to answer that question. Per City Attorney Markman, “The law only requires action minutes and record of the vote.”

What about the spirit of the law Mr. Markman? What will it take to shift “transparency” from being a campaign buzzword to how this city conducts it’s business? What will it take to institute a level of accountability into how this city conducts it’s business that will help Breans to begin to trust local government again?

One final thought.

When a motion dies for lack of a second it’s a slap in the face to the one making the motion. I’ll refrain from suggesting what epithet accompanies the assault, but you might as well raise middle fingers in unison as you sit there mute.

Roy Moore once said that he often seconded motions with which he was in opposition if for no other reason than to demonstrate respect for his peers and afford them the opportunity to have their ideas discussed. Amen Roy.

For all Council’s continued yammering about respect and professional courtesy, letting a motion die for lack of a second belays all that. It is unconscionable. It is unacceptable.

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