Where’s the Vision?
That brings us to vision, which has come relatively late to the Westside COG. Today’s Priorities and Visioning Exercise was organized around getting the perspective of board members (all electeds or alternates from member cities) concerning the Westside COG’s recent activities – and the priorities it should carry forward. The staff report identified four priority items for discussion:
- COG bike sharing program (Santa Monica Mayor’s Bloom’s initiative)
- Bicycle safety and awareness (a.k.a. gap closures, which has been in progress since summer 2011 );
- Plug-in electric vehicle readiness (the appeal of state & federal grants availability can’t be overstated);
- Transportation Summit (reprising the COG’s forum from some years ago).
But boardmembers weren’t limited to these four priorities, and indeed in round-robin style they discussed the relative importance of a number of past initiatives and possible foci for the fiscal year ahead. An hour was budgeted for this exercise and boardmembers were not provided with material beforehand to refresh memories that have dimmed. For many older initiatives, today’s elected officials didn’t then sit on the COG board. So at best this is a rough approximation of sentiment – not quite a formal visioning exercise.
“Think of yourselves as judges at the Olympics,” the facilitator said. “We don’t need empirical exactitude but rather your sense” of where the COG should go. Work started with past initiatives. Where has the COG been successful? Boardmembers gave their sense of value on a scale from 1-5 regarding the following past initiatives:
- Advisory direction on the Expo line & Westside subway extension (4.5 average)
- Telecommunication conference event in 2001 (no score – “not effective”)
- Mobility summit event in 2002 (4 avg.)
- ‘Walkable Westside’ Safety Education initiative (3.3)
- MTA Joint call for Projects in 2004 (3)
- Walkable Boulevards symposium event in 2006 (1.3)
- Advocacy Toolkit (everyone passes on scoring it)
Clearly COG efforts were regarded with varying appreciation. Perhaps the best indication overall was the collective response to the question, “How has the COG done since inception?”
Boarmembers were not only split on the COG’s overall value, but in two cases member cities gave it diverging scores. Beverly Hills representatives gave it both a three and a one, for example, without much explication. That indicated some ambivalence among boardmembers.
Comments were a bit more focused. “I hope we’ll become more active,” John Rivera from Culver City said, “but we’ll need a different staffing mechanism…We’re not getting what we should be getting [for the budget] and this meeting is an example of it,” he said, putting a fine point on his view of the visioning exercise. He added, “It’s about having cities work jointly to improve the quality of life.”
The Westside COG has one part-time Executive Director and no resident staffing otherwise. Unlike other COGs, cities here shoulder much of the technical assistance, etc. [With a staffing budget of over $100k, we’ve suggested that a resident mobility coordinator share staff duties.]
While participants were satisfied with the work distribution, it’s worth noting that Santa Monica and Culver City seem to do most of the lifting. It’s not clear that Beverly Hills provides meaningful staff support to the COG at all. And our elected attendees rarely contribute to the discussion. Staff check their phones frequently.
Moving onto other possible regional programs and priorities, more votes were taken about COG possible actions:
- Plug-in Vehicle initiative? (3.7 average in favor of making it a priority);
- Branded tourism? (No support: “Forget the word ‘branding'” somebody said);
- Senior door-to-door transportation service? (strong – 5s all around)
- Collaborative procurement? (2.5 average, middling support)
- Employment centers & economic development? (Some support but confusion about what that entails – and how would economic development work when cities are often in competition?);
- Collaborative study for transit-oriented development? (Mixed with strong support in Santa Monica but ‘zero’ support in Beverly Hills, with Rivera most critical: “It’s a study – I don’t want studies I want action plans.”);
- COG Mobility plan update? (‘Zero’ said Beverly Hills new Mayor Brien, with Rivera suggesting targeting “50 worst intersections” for action).
With the proposed budget coming up for COG action in May, the board was also asked about more general changes to the COG. Need to meet more than every other month? (Not really.) Increase COG visibility among the public? (No.) Would COG boardmembers suggest that the COG take on more responsibility with a commensurate increase in budget? “We can look at the budget, but it has to be valuable,” Beverly Hills Mayor Brien said, adding “measurable outcomes, not just [information] updates.” He supports greater grant money income but not necessarily a greater city contribution.
Until early 2011, the COG had been a somnambulant organization that could hardly keep up with the basics (like timely posting of minutes) let alone adopt a real action agenda. That’s improved recently, with the COG taking the initiative to examine past accomplishments and look ahead to next steps. While this visioning exercise was not particularly effective, it did take the temperature of the board.
Substantively, feedback suggested one direction that the COG was not likely to explore: transportation policy. There wasn’t much interest in revisiting the years-old Mobility Summit event, for example, and the TOD study proposal went nowhere. Which is somewhat curious since mobility is a challenge (like homelessness and environmental concerns) that spans all local governments on the Westside.
Beverly Hills’s COG representative, the incoming Mayor Willie Brien, was particularly disinclined to see the COG undertake a transportation study or to revisit the organization’s outdated mobility plan. ‘Zero’ was his measure of his interest. That is unfortunate for cyclists because the new Mayor, a physician, might be expected to advocate for active transportation on public health grounds alone (if not on a quality-of-life basis). But he’s not shown himself to be a supporter of bike facilities to date, which itself is a missed opportunity to bring multimodal mobility to Beverly Hills (as called for in our city plans).
Then there’s the public outreach function of the COG. It doesn’t really exist at all. It’s always been curious to Better Bike that an organization comprised of elected officials, and which operates in the political sphere, has been not very solicitous of public input. Not surprisingly, few or no stakeholders typically attend the meetings, and the board indicated no interest in making the COG, or its business, more widely known. That’s why Better Bike is there: if we don’t keep an eye on the COG and other representative organizations, why they won’t do a great job of representing the interests of cyclists.