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By Roz Rogoff

Open government, closed minds

Uploaded: Apr 26, 2012

I've been trying to find out more about this HOV Ramp project proposed by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA). I attended the Scoping Session last November, which was to present the history and purpose of this project. I expected the usual two or three residents, a handful of City and County employees, and a Councilmember or two who usually attend these kinds of government meetings. Instead the room was packed with opponents egged on by Jim Gibbon and his San Ramon for Open Government organization.

Now I love Jim Gibbon. I appreciate his passion for what he believes in and his activism against what he doesn't, but his San Ramon for Open Government is a closed organization open only by invitation and accessed through a mailing list and secret password. Even though I asked Jim to help save the Mudd's building, and he has been very helpful in that project, I am not a member of San Ramon for Open Government and I don't ever expect to be (nor do I want to be).

Many residents living near Norris Canyon Road don't want the HOV ramps. Those who attended the Scoping Meeting didn't want to hear what the CCTA representatives had to say, and didn't care if anyone else there (like me) wanted to hear it. So the speakers were shouted down and prevented from giving their presentation. One of their complaints was this plan was foisted on them fully grown without their input.

But the purpose of the meeting was to introduce CCTA's plans and get input from the residents. This wasn't something that popped out of nowhere. CCTA started working on plans for spending Measure C half-cent transportation tax many, many years ago. Measure C was passed in 1988 and reauthorized in measure J in 2004.

CCTA published proposals, timelines, studies, and reports over the last ten years and these are all available to anyone who wanted to find them. That's the trouble with open government. The door is open, but if you want to see what's inside you have to make the effort to go inside.

California has had an open meeting act, known as the Brown Act, for over 50 years. The agendas of all government meetings must be posted in a public place 48 hours before the meeting.

With the internet and cable TV and other means of mass communication, streaming video or audio of meetings can be provided live, in real time. I occasionally watch C-Span which is the Federal Congressional station where you can see what Congresspersons and Senators are really saying about bills and proposals and not what is in their political fliers or attack ads against their opponents. It could be an eye opener to those who get predigested sound bites from "news" stations with a political agenda.

Since the CCTA was not able to continue their presentation at the Scoping Meeting, I went to the Workshop in March at the City Center. I expected this to be more interactive with breakout sessions for the neighbors to discuss the options under consideration.

Instead it was worse than the first meeting. Angry neighbors again shouted down the speakers and prevented CCTA employees from getting more than 10 minutes into their presentation. Residents in the audience wanted to ask questions, but they only wanted the answers they liked and the only answer they liked was for CCTA to go away and drop the project.

Even when the CCTA consultant said they were considering the alternate exit at Executive Parkway, which I thought would solve their fears of traffic clogging up Norris Canyon, going West into their residential neighborhood, or making the overpass unsafe for children and pedestrians (even though it would be widened with sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides and increased earthquake safety), the opponents didn't want to hear about it.

A group of residents opposed to the HOV ramps spoke in public comment at the April 10th City Council meeting to object to the Council's approval of the project and to asked for the item to be put on the agenda of an upcoming meeting. Their goal was to reverse the Council's acceptance of the project.

I expected to see this item in the agenda for the April Policy Committee meeting and I planned to attend it to ask that the CCTA representatives would be allowed to give their complete, uninterrupted presentation at the Council meeting because I wanted to hear it, and I thought it should be included in the televised meeting so anyone else who wanted to know their side of it could without being blocked by residents who wanted CCTA to go away and leave them alone.

I was surprised to see the item on the April 24th City Council meeting agenda. I phoned Transportation Manager, Lisa Bobadilla, and asked if she could have the CCTA representatives there to give the presentation they have not been able to give for the last four months. Lisa said they would be at the meeting to give an update on where the project is at this time and answer Councilmembers questions.

I was very impressed that Lisa Bobadilla put this together so quickly and professionally. The meeting was very civil and informative. Even the residents who objected to the project spoke in public comment with reason and courtesy, which was not the case in the two previous meetings I attended.

As far as open government goes, it's all there in the videos on the City's website. The newest feature is Video on Demand of City Council meetings. You can click on a meeting and select the agenda item to view. This makes it as easy as possible to find out what your city government is doing, even if you cannot attend the meetings in person.

If you don't like what government is doing, go to the meetings or write an email and say "I don't like what you are doing," but don't prevent someone else who might like it from knowing about it.

Councilmember Phil O'Loane, who ran on an Open Government platform, said at the April 24th meeting that there are people in the Norris Canyon neighborhood who support the HOV ramps but are afraid to say so. That's a shame. That's not what open government should be about.