The murmur of roughly 70 people filled the Museum of Art & History’s lobby on the evening of June 1, during the second of four Santa Cruz City Hall to You meetings, put on by city staffers. Colorful trifold cardboard displays and laminated posters lined the edges of the room, giving the new event a science fair feel.
The newly launched program is an attempt by Santa Cruz City Hall to directly inform locals about what’s happening in their world and demonstrate how their community works.
The who’s-who of Santa Cruz government included a Q&A with Mayor Cynthia Mathews, councilmembers and directors from every major city department. Local institutions—from the police to the public libraries to the parking and water departments—were present at tables, with pamphlets to hand out, as well as some pretty useful advice. The Parking Enforcement Department, for instance, displayed a sign showing how to read downtown meters from “cheap” to “cheaper” to “cheapest.” (The ones with the red labels are “cheap,” and the green labels designate the “cheapest.”)
After an hour of chatting, attendees sat down for an hour presentation led by Vice Mayor Cynthia Chase on upcoming plans for the downtown area.
“City Hall to You is just that,” explained Chase, who came up with the idea for the summit. “Our intention is to bring the city services to the community to answer your questions, talk about projects we have going on and let you know about initiatives that are happening.“
All this comes on the heels of a changing platform of how city and county governments are interacting with their communities. Leaders are going right to residents and reaching them in a way they never have before—posting on nextdoor.com, managing social media accounts and planning informational meetings.
Long gone are the days when people wrote letters to their local governments. For years, they’ve used emails and, more recently, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, to air concerns and ask questions. Many departments at City Hall run their own website, blog and Facebook page. With the information available, one can find pictures of polling places on election day, updates about the current issues and information about upcoming meetings with a few clicks of the mouse.
Some posts are more humorous, like a Twitter poll from the Santa Cruz County Government’s page in March asking followers what to name Watsonville’s floating “island” that had broken off and was drifting around Pinto Lake. The top vote getter? “Interlakistan.”
“The first step is to get people’s attention,” county communications manager Jason Hoppin says of getting information out in the digital age. “Once you have their attention, you can work with it to get them to follow through with action.”
Hoppin, a former award-winning journalist for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, was hired by County Administrator Susan Mauriello in August of last year. He says that as people lose trust in government institutions, it becomes increasingly important to get good information out to people who care.
“There’s a lot of distrust of government, up and down, from federal to local levels, and it’s something that’s been growing,” says Hoppin, one of five former Sentinel journalists now working in public relations. “It’s incumbent of government to tell residents what they’re doing to serve the community.”
It should come as no surprise that news coverage in Santa Cruz is thinner than it was three years ago, when readers had more options for information, including Santa Cruz Patch or KUSP—and of course a more robust daily coverage in the Sentinel. This has forced government officials to be more creative about how they keep people informed.
But as the digital age changes how people learn, longtime journalist Conn Hallinan says that news reporters should not sit back and be satisfied with city leaders covering issues for themselves. While government leaders are fully capable of sharing information, he notes that that isn’t their primary focus. Their goal is to govern.
“For one thing, government is not a neutral organization. Therefore, it very rarely makes itself look bad,” says Hallinan, a former UCSC lecturer who’s based in Berkeley. “That’s why you have an independent press. You have an independent press because you want independent analysis. I’m not saying this is propaganda, but, in a way, it is propaganda. These people are going to show you how government works. They’re not going to show you how government doesn’t work.”
Chase says one of the things city officials are trying to do is combat the inaccuracies that can spread on social media. “With social media, information spreads quickly, whether it’s accurate or not,” she says. “Misinformation is spread, and it’s hard—and time-consuming—to chase that down and inform the people accurately.”
In a way, that’s how City Hall to You represents a shift in approach, Chase says. It lets community members connect with officials on a personal level in their own neighborhood.
“With the advent of social media, there has been talk [in the government] of more communication,” states Scott Collins, assistant to the city manager. “But it’s no substitute for a face-to-face interaction.”
At the meeting, speakers included City Manager Martín Bernal, Parks and Recreation Director Mauro Garcia, and Economic Development Director Bonnie Lipscomb—each discussing future plans, along with dates of public meetings when the community can participate.
They updated listeners on the Beach Flats mural project, affordable housing, the Santa Cruz Fiber Project, and downtown’s Hospitality Guide Program, which is soon to be replaced by park rangers, who will have the authority to issue tickets for minor infractions.
“I think people struggle with government on accessibility, and on a certain level, trust,” Chase says. “So this was really an attempt to get out into the neighborhoods.”
So far, the response, Collins says, has been positive.
Each meeting is designed to target a specific area of the city, and this month’s event aimed to reach downtown, the beach-area and Harvey West residents. The third City Hall to You will be on Wednesday, Aug. 31 at the Peace United Church on High Street and will focus on the Westside. The fourth and final meeting of the year will take place on Dec. 7 at the Elks Lodge on Jewell Street and will focus on the Ocean Street/Upper Eastside area. The city also welcomes people from outside the designated area at each event.
The first meeting, held in February, focused on the Eastside with roughly 200 people attending, which blew away our expectations,” Collins says.
The next City Hall to You is at the Peace United Church at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 31. For more information, visit cityofsantacruz.com.