Use consensus to rejuvenate city parks

This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Jeanne Sparks was published in the Santa Maria Times on June 17, 2016:

As I lament the impending loss of historical features, mature trees and picnic tables at Buena Vista Park, I wonder what went wrong in the public-planning process.

The park was designated by the city’s Landmark Committee as Santa Maria’s first Historic Landmark, yet the committee apparently has not been consulted in the park’s redesign. Historic aspects of the park will be lost when they could be saved.

Buena Vista Beautifiers and staff from the Recreation and Parks Department have met to address issues. Both sides have good intentions, but we have disagreements.

The Beautifiers have involved 40 people from 25 organizations, surveyed more than 200 people, and conducted several events in the park. Although some of the plans for the park are improvements, our most important issues were not adequately addressed. We also haven’t received the detailed cost estimate we requested.

We believe the goals of improving safety and enhancing the park can be accomplished while preserving the unique, bell-shaped sidewalk, and the mature trees that provide wonderful shade for people and shelter for birds.

We took these and other issues to the City Council in April. Council member Terri Zuniga asked the department to meet one or two times with Beautifiers. At the first meeting, we were told we would meet only once. Instead of a dialogue, we were told a report would go to the Recreation and Parks Commission on May 10.

On May 9, we were sent some responses to our issues, but no adequate explanation as to why our suggestions couldn’t be accommodated. Recreation and Parks Director Alex Posada told us we would have to speak during the public-comment period, a time near the beginning of the meeting usually reserved for items not on the agenda. Commissioners would not take our comments after staff gave their report, which is what most public bodies do.

Staff said they could do this because the agenda item was only informational. This means that even if commissioners had wanted to take action on the item, they could not have, other than to reschedule it.

Twenty people turned in speaker slips, including some children. Other Beautifiers attended, but chose not to speak. One person arrived right after the testimony began, but was not allowed to speak.

We were told our comments would be limited to 15 minutes total, or 40 seconds to one minute each. Most governmental bodies give each speaker three minutes, only cutting back their time when there is an overwhelming number of speakers.

Twenty speakers equals one hour maximum. This commission usually only meets for about two hours once a month. They could have shown us they valued our input by giving us three minutes each. Thinking they would want our input, I spent hours cutting back what I wanted to say to three minutes. Having to chop it by two-thirds at the last minute was a slap in the face.

We ask Mayor Alice Patino to become involved to change the speaking policy and to set up consensus-building processes.

The National Recreation and Parks Association publishes an online guide, “Rejuvenating Neighborhoods and Communities Through Parks.” They recommend multiple meetings to arrive at a consensus on how to renovate a park and how to work together after the improvements. This not only improves parks, but also rejuvenates neighborhoods. We deserve this here, not just at Buena Vista, but at Enos Ranchos and throughout the city.

Mayor Patino, please make this happen.

Jeanne Sparks is associate director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN). She can be reached at [email protected]. More information on this topic is at Looking Forward is a progressive look at local issues.