Encinitas council cancels E-Town Hall contract

E-Town Hall, a method of collecting public feedback online, was recently scrapped.

The Encinitas City Council voted 4-1 on Feb. 26 to terminate the E-Town Hall contract and set up a subcommittee to explore other virtual outreach options.

E-Town Hall, powered by the company Peak Democracy, allowed residents to comment on topics such as the housing element, a plan outlining future growth. The city signed up for the service last year to reach those who haven’t historically attended council meetings.

Mayor Kristin Gaspar said the city promised a community-centric approach to the housing element. She said E-Town Hall failed in this goal, largely because commenters weren’t required to display their names or indicate which Encinitas community they reside in.

“The problem is Peak Democracy was selected as the primary tool to be used on the most critical task that our city will face,” Gaspar said, referring to the housing element. She also said she’s doubtful the service could be improved to address her concerns.

Councilman Mark Muir said instead of E-Town Hall, the housing element warranted a scientific survey to capture feedback.

“I proposed that from the beginning,” Muir said.

Muir and Gaspar initially supported canceling the E-Town Hall contract, having the city’s communications officer present an overview of the city’s outreach strategy at a later council meeting and looking at alternatives from there.

Ultimately, Muir and Gaspar agreed on the subcommittee process, which will explore virtual engagement tools in the context of the city’s communications plan. City staff will help the subcommittee develop ideas, and the public will have the chance to weigh in during subcommittee meetings.

Deputy Mayor Catherine Blakespear said Muir and Gaspar have voiced concerns with E-Town Hall in the past, so they should take a more active role in finding an online alternative to engage residents. She added at least one of them should serve on the subcommittee.

“From my perspective this has become a partisan lightning rod and we should move on from it immediately and have a subcommittee,” Blakespear said.

Blakespear added a subcommittee is important because she doesn’t want the council to be split on future issues because it can’t agree on an outreach strategy.

During a Feb. 5 meeting dedicated to the housing element, Blakespear sided with Gaspar and Muir in bringing back an agenda item to consider canceling E-Town Hall. That compromise vote paved the way for unanimous council agreement on three housing element maps, which will soon undergo environmental review.

Gaspar will serve on the communications subcommittee with Councilman Tony Kranz.

Kranz said E-Town Hall is valuable for gaining feedback. He later added the service had some functionality issues that should have been worked out before the housing element launched.

He also said citizen engagement software shouldn’t be a sore subject for the council, stating he’s in favor of getting rid of the service and identifying an alternative.

Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer, the lone vote against the motion, said the E-Town Hall comments people posted on the housing element were very helpful and informative. She added the service allowed residents to not only weigh in on their own time, but also learn more about topics.

“Is there any reason to think some other tool is going to be any better?” Shaffer asked.

The E-Town Hall contract allows for cancellation at any point with 30-days notice.

Annually, the fee is $9,000, with the city making two $4,500 payments. The city in January put down a payment for the term from Feb. 13 to Aug. 12 and will be refunded a prorated amount of $3,375.

Copyright © 2019, The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. All rights reserved.
57°