Top Secret: Beverly Hills City Council Holds a Priority-Setting Session

City Council group shot 2013You would think it is top-secret: the city calendars a priority-setting exercise to craft policy-making for the coming fiscal year yet no press release promotes it. The website hardly mentions it. And our crackerjack communications team conducts zero outreach for an ostensibly stakeholder-driven process. Why not invite stakeholders? Do policy-makers & staff want the warm coffee and Costco cookies all for themselves?

We will break the silence simply by asking you to mark your calendar for Tuesday, December 15th at 2:30 PM when this year’s priority-setting exercise will get underway at Beverly Hills City Hall. We’ll be there (as we were last year) with our own talking points and an admonition for policymakers: it is your responsibility to make streets safe for all road users. Let’s make it a priority!

What is the ‘Priorities-Setting Exercise’?

Every December City of Beverly Hills establishes priorities for the coming fiscal year, which begins in July. Set by City Council, the priorities act as a road map for department managers and city commissions by suggesting work plans, objectives, and the allocation of resources. For City Council, too, these priorities are a reminder of which efforts are the most important to see through to completion.

City priorities are short-handed in a matrix. It identifies the program or initiative; the responsible department; and the estimated completion date (take the latter with a pinch of salt). Each priority receives a letter grade to indicate its relative priority. Here is an example from the latest (FY 2015-16) priority matrix highlighting the ‘B’ priority assigned to bike-friendly efforts. (See all of this year’s priorities.)

City Council priorities 2015-16 excerpt bike plan‘A’ level flags an initiative for completion (or significant progress) in the fiscal year; ‘B’ level indicates programs expected to be completed within 2-5 years; and ‘C’ level priorities are expected to bump-up eventually. As items are completed the lower-priority items bubble-up.

But it doesn’t always work that way. The ‘citywide bike plan’ priority, for example, first appeared as a ‘B’ in FY 2012-13. But it never escaped that second tier; it never bubbled-up to an A-level. And in the two most recent priorities matrices, the description of that item changed. Where it once read, “Prepare a comprehensive Plan to create bicycle paths throughout the City,” more recently the emphasis shifted away from the plan update to something more nebulous. “Continue to develop acceptable enhancements to bike mobility throughout the City,” it read in FY 2013. In FY 2014 the priority appended, “including bike sharing.”

Is Bike-Friendly a Priority In Beverly Hills?

Exactly how much of a priority is anything remotely supportive of the bike-friendly city in Beverly Hills? Not much of a priority. For example, there has been no bike-friendly “enhancement” anywhere in the city since aside from a few bike lane block segments that were installed back in mid-2013. With that the city simply called it ‘job done.’

The bike-sharing item was tacked to reflect the Council’s interest in a boutique-sized, tourist-focused system that is expected to debut in 2016. (To our knowledge, none of the many riders in touch with city staff asked for bike-share here.)

And of course the single most significant “enhancement” was sidestepped entirely this past July when City Council turned its back on hundreds of riders who called for bicycle lanes for Santa Monica Boulevard for greater safety. Many earlier suggestions for alternative bike routes and safety signage have simply been ignored.

Shouldn’t safe, multimodal mobility be a priority? We think so, and we told Council during the priority-setting exercise last December. We highlighted BHPD data that showed 36 bicycle riders were injured on city streets over the previous calendar year (2013). That is 10% of all crash injuries despite riders having made up fewer than 1% of road users in that (or any) year. There has been no decline in rider injuries over time either: that year, injured riders reached a near-seven-year peak.

Had preventing crash injuries been a city priority, we wouldn’t see enforcement nosedive in most categories as that year progressed.

Enforcement citation trendlines for 2013
Chart by Better Bike from BHPD data.

That changed ‘bike plan’ priority pictured above – the one that essentially removes any reference to the bike plan update – was reflected in the late news that the city won’t be updating our Bicycle Master Plan after all. It dates to 1977. The update had been a ‘B’ priority that simply fell off the priorities matrix.

Why Haven’t I Ever Heard of the ‘Priorities-Setting Exercise’?

A priorities-setting exercise should balance stakeholder demands and policymaker aspirations against the city’s finite resources. But here only stakeholders get the short shrift. We’re simply not invited to participate: no press release has announced the event since a press release back in 2008. No mention has ever been made in the city’s In Focus magazine, which is delivered direct to city households. And it’s not promoted on the city website as an outreach initiative; it’s calendared just like any other Council meeting. On a Tuesday afternoon. With only 72 hours notice.

With zero outreach to the community, Is it any wonder few, if anyone, from the public bothers to attend? Yet engaging stakeholders is identified as an ‘A’ priority in this year’s priority matrix.

Community Visioning priority in FY2015-16 matrixSo much for reaching out to “citizens not usually heard from”! In that 2008 press release – issued after-the-fact of the priorities exercise, by the way – then-City Manager Rod Wood was honest in his assessment of where the public fits into the priorities-setting. Nowhere.

Priorities setting exercise Press Release 2008For any member of the public who is interested to attend this year’s exercise, we encourage you to set aside Tuesday 12/15 at 2:30 PM. We’d love to be able to introduce you to this bit of local governance theater, but unfortunately there exists no record of past  priorities-setting exercises: no minutes, synopses or video.

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