Beyond Open Door

This is a repost of a blog post I wrote back in 2016 for Emerge California and that it looks like has been recently re-organized off of the blog.

The elected officials I most admire constantly talk to their constituents. They talk to them on Twitter, on the street, at community meetings run by others and at neighborhood gatherings they pull together themselves. Their constant openness takes energy. Sometimes, it can confuse constituents who aren’t used to access, as U.S. Senator Booker (D-NJ) found a few years ago when a resident of Ireland reached out to him to for help filling a ditch:

Before I came back home to California after 7 years of school and advocacy work on the East Coast, I spent a year in Seattle. I started out volunteering and then working for local campaigns. I was constantly talking. Everywhere I went, I chatted with people in my community, breathing in their concerns and breathing out potential solutions. After the election, I had the opportunity to staff the chair of the state House budget committee during a constitutional crisis centered around K-12 education funding.

One day, during my first few weeks in Olympia, I overheard my boss was going to give a speech that evening. I asked if I could attend. I was told not to by a trusted caucus staff member. She said I couldn’t go to community events during the legislative session, because they might benefit the Representative in his next election. With long experience in the capital, she was concerned that having a state-paid staff member at the event would be an improper use of tax-payer funded time. Everyone I talked to agreed: as staffers, we should stay in our cubicles.

A week or so later, I floated the idea of knocking some doors in district to ask constituents how they felt about a bill; I was new to area and wanted to help inform my boss’s work. The senior caucus staff let me know that was not allowed because reaching out to constituents was too close to campaigning. I later discovered legislative aides and assistants were also not allowed to use Twitter to respond to constituents who tweeted at the Representatives, because most elected officials in Washington state only have one account for their campaigns and do not maintain a separate one for official work. 

The caucus staff did incredible work within these rules, using caucus resources to get information out to constituents and report back to legislators. I could understand how the caucus got to each policy and would never want to cross official and campaign work. But the practical result of the rules was that we were distanced from constituents. Campaigns got all the innovative grassroots tactics while elected officials were left to limp along using the tools of bureaucracy to achieve the ends of representative democracy.

It was like leaders in elected office had to hold their breaths between campaigns, not meeting constituents where they lived but waiting for them to make an appointment. The good legislators I came to know always had an open door policy for constituents. But to take advantage of that policy, a constituent had to take time off work, find a car to drive or time to meander on the bus, and find the office before she could walk though that door and be heard. That is a missed opportunity.

We can do better in California as leaders in Emerge. We can decide to meet our constituents where they are—not just at community meetings that require tickets or nice clothes, not just at functionally-closed-door club meetings, but at their front doors, on their commutes, walking in our parks, on the phone and online. Our communities cannot hold their breaths between campaigns, hoping to be heard only in the months leading up to an election.

I answered most in-coming calls to the office during my time in Olympia and I found the people who felt most secure making their views known were those who had met the Representative in person. I got calls from constituents who recalled that he had knocked on their doors last year, 5 years ago, 10 years ago. People remembered and that memory made them feel like their he was a person who was responsible to them. Not in an abstract, civic-lesson kind of way, but as a reliable figure in their lives. That was exactly the kind of relationship I wanted for all residents to have.

As part of the Emerge 2016 class, we get to decide what kind of elected officials we want to be for our future constituents. Do we want to be welcoming, present in their lives, and truly accessible? Or do we want to sit back in our chairs and wait to see who can get through our doors? 

I vote we get out and breathe the shared air of our communities, not just to get elected, but to stay connected to the people we wish to serve.

Tenth San José Human Services Commission Meeting

Our first meeting of 2019! And we have serious forward momentum on a number of key issues. Hooray!

As a brief aside, this is my 1-year anniversary on the commission. 5 moments that stand out for me:

  1. Elevating the voice of a Silicon Valley De-Bug activist, Anthony T. King and having a serious conversation with SJPD and the Housing Department about how the property of people who are homeless is treated. The Housing Department said they were planning to change which vendors manage the belongings of people caught-up in what most people call “encampment sweeps”; this is the change I was advocating for and I look forward to following-up with them to make sure that people who are homeless are treated better.
  2. Re-writing the Women’s Bill of Rights to explicitly include transgender and non-binary residents. The City Attorney asked that I reformat it as a comparison table between the old bill and the new one. That seemed like busywork and another way to stonewall, but I did it; we’ll be discussing those changes at today’s meeting.
  3. Drafting a Request for Information, the first step the City Manager’s office says the need to take before they can put out a Request for Proposal to hire an independent consultant to manage the gender analysis survey required under the Women’s Bill of Rights. This is a huge deal, something we’ve been fighting for all year, and if I had to write it on my birthday, well, it’s a good way to start my 30s.
  4. This is a lot less formal, but a lot more colorful and joyful — I loved the Children’s Rights Showcase that the Human Services Commission put on, where dozens of children from our community shared their talents and learned about their rights. I did the important work of painting faces — popular designs included Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Cats.
  5. Getting elected Chair of the Human Services Commission in my first year. It means a lot to me that my fellow commissioners trust me to lead and it’s been a joy helping move all of our goals for our city forward.

When I first starting writing these updates, they were an attempt to understand an agenda drafted by staff and the then-chair, to share my views on issues, and organize my thoughts. But since getting elected chair, I don’t have to divine authorial intent, because I am, in fact, the author of the agenda. I think it’s made these updates shorter, more focused, and more in-the-loop. But I also miss the longer attempts to get my arms around the wide range of issues we face in the 10th largest city in the United States. I’m looking forward to seeing how these posts grow and evolve as the commission continues to do its good work.

Now, onto the agenda.

First Thing’s First: 

Report from the Chair

I’ll be reporting to the commission on 3 things:

Recruitment: Given our quorum issues at the tail-end of last year, I’ll be asking folks to try to reach into their networks to recruit not-only for our commission, but for the Planning Commission that, as I understand it, staff suggested an appointment to without reopening the application process, and council required they recruit more for in the name and reality of transparency. So, apply!

Monthly Letter to Council

This letter is lighter than usual because, well, council didn’t really do much between 12/20 and last week, when I drafted the letter with the help of some local human rights activists.

Ad Hoc: Womens’ Bill of Rights

At the December meeting, our commission was asked to provide input on a Request for Information they are hoping to put-out at the end of the month. During a meeting on December 20th, they asked for a 2 week turn-around — and we made it happen. Here is what we proposed. As of writing, the agenda hasn’t been updated with the final version of the RFI and I am excited to see and discuss it.

Ad Hoc: Ending Domestic Violence

I have work I need to do for this ad hoc and am glad we will have a bit more time to work on it, since per staff at the last meeting, we can continue to work on these ad hocs until April.

Ad Hoc: Protecting the Rights of People with Disabilities

One of our commissioners helped arrange for a presentation on accessibility for people with disabilities from the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, and I am hoping to ask the following questions:

  1. What are the 3 biggest challenges people with visible and with invisible disabilities have in being fully engaged in the civic, social, and professional life of San José?
  2. What are 3 successful policies which have worked in other cities that you believe San José City Council should enact today?
  3. Do you believe we need a separate Disability Services Commission? For the record, I absolutely do.

Ad Hoc: Protecting Environmental Sustainability Rights

I expect we’re going to talk about Community Choice Aggregation, as well as follow-up on the pollution concerns from the last meeting. Both of these issues are sub-facets of the environmental justice issues our city is facing. For those not familiar with the term environmental justice, it refers to using economic and racial equity lenses when discussing environmental issues.

Ad Hoc: Protecting Justice-Impacted Children’s Rights

There is some fascinating research about how to improve juvenile justice for youth with disabilities that I believe will play an important role in this report; I’m looking forward to hearing more!

Ad Hoc: Protecting Immigrants’Rights

I will be asking the commission for if they have heard specific updates or concerns in their communities about ICE activity. I have not gotten a call as a Rapid Responder in a few months, but I know there is still real and substantiated fear in our community right now.


An informative note on quorum: Quorum is the number of people needed for a body to be able to be empowered to act. It’s a fundamentally democratic, majoritarian tool, requiring 50% + 1 of the members of the body, because in democracy, majority is supposed to rule. There are various small-r republican institutions (like the electoral college and the US Senate) which are designed to further representative representation, rather than democratic representation; that’s a civics debate I would love to have anytime, anywhere.

In practical fact, our commission has 13 members (1 seat for each of the 10 council districts in San José, and 3 special seats for different issues that required special voices on the council, like disability services and domestic violence). That means quorum is 7 people (50% of 13 is 6.5, but there are no .5 people, so call it 6, then + 1 = 7).

We are going to be tight on quorum today, since we’ve had a birth (yay!) and major medical issues (upsetting) for 2 of our commissioners. In addition, Councilmember Dev Davis, Councilmember Lan Diep, and Councilmember Sylvia Arenas have not yet filled their constituents’ seats on the commission (Councilmember Davis’s seat has been empty since June, and the perspective of Willow Glen residents is missed). With 3 empty seats, and 3 seats where the commissioners cannot attend, we have exactly 7 people left and that’s how many people we need to arrive by 6:30pm.

We used to be able to start as late as 7, but then the Clerk’s office reinterpreted the rules unilaterally and informed us that if we don’t have quorum by 6:30pm, we are not allowed to meet. So the Vice Chair and I have taken to madly texting ever commissioner the day before the meeting to ensure quorum, after we didn’t meet for 2 months because of a lack of quorum. It’s a frustrating, time-consuming issue that is not the fault of individual commissioners, and much more the fault of the councilmembers who have not filled seats; this is one that I am hoping to resolve this year.

How you can help: If you live in Councilmember Lan Diep’s district (District 4), Councilmember Dev Davis’s district (District 6), or Councilmember Sylvia Arenas’s district (District 8) and have read this far down in this post, please apply to join the commission!

Ninth San José Human Services Commission Meeting

Note: I wasn’t sure until we had quorum that we were going to get quorum, so I didn’t post this back on 12/20. Here it is!

Our commission is finishing the year strong with a lot of important issues on the agenda. But first, a note on timing — I haven’t posted an update here since September because we haven’t met since September. This is disappointing, since our commission provides a valuable service to our community and, on a personal level, I enjoy spending time with and learning from my fellow Commissioners, Unfortunately, both in October and November, we didn’t have quorum — this was because several of our volunteer commissioners had deaths and births happen and they had to refocus on their families. We are currently on-schedule to meet for tomorrow, so fingers-crossed!

Now, onto the agenda.

First Thing’s First: Report from the Chair

I used my time to report on a two things:

  1. Thanking everyone for their time, service, and brilliance. Several wonderful commissioners present at the meeting were cycling off the board, and their service has been vital.
  2. Going over every date in 2019 that we would all have the opportunity to come together, hoping that using some of my mad scheduler skills would help us find and maintain quorum for every meeting in 2019.

Monthly Letter to Council

Read the full letter here. Some highlights included our feedback to city council on issues that had come-up in the past month and we believed might come-up again. Here is what we wrote:

  1. We were concerned that Chief Garcia’s six page memo, “Subject: City Council Policy Priority #10: Personal Care Business Compliance Initiative” (9/20/18) included was no mention of any labor trafficking assessment conducted by SJPD at the 191 identified illicit massage businesses. It concerns us that the Vice unit might be continuing the type of “sting” operation which resulted in the Ruiz settlement in the amount of $125,000 (File: 18-1388). Ending human trafficking requires a survivor-centric model, with survivors receiving access to restorative services; nothing in this memo indicates this was either SJPD’s approach or the outcome of their strategy (File: 18-1381).

  2. We strongly support council’s resolution opposing the Public Charge rule released by the Department of Homeland Security and published in the Federal Registrar on October 10, 2018 (File: 18-1419).

  3. 3. We recommend strengthening the privacy and civil liberty protections in the Automated License Place Recognition Policy (File: 18-1438). For example, in this line: “The City will not use ALPR Technology for the purpose of monitoring individual activities that are otherwise protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” It is not clear how the city would respond if the current administration requested the license plate data from a protest where attendees parked on city property; the request would be a clear effort to chill speech as this administration has in the past, but without a clear policy on deleting this tracking information, a city employee might share the information. (link)

  4. Our colleagues on the Housing and Committee Development Committee shared a letter in September in support of increasing family-sized affordable housing in San José as part of a broad and comprehensive response to the affordable housing crisis; because access to housing impacts a number of human rights, we wish to add our support for this letter as well.

Ad Hoc: Womens’ Bill of Rights

  1. We heard a presentation from Zulma Maciel of the City Manager’s office on how they were moving forward in finding an independent consultant to conduct the gender analysis survey. This has been a major focus of the commission in the past year, and a major focus of mine on the commission, so it was gratifying to see forward momentum. Her ask: She asked if I (as the chair of the committee focused on implementing the Women’s Bill of Rights) would gather input from the other members of my ad hoc on what a Request for Information (RFI) should look like. She provided a sample RFI from 14 years ago, for a warehouse contract, and I turned it into this, which I’m pretty proud of.
  2. Some quick reading: The op-ed I ghost-wrote on this issue, published in San Jose Inside, sparked greater attention to this issue in the City Manager’s office. That would not have been possible without the courageous leadership of Taraneh Roosta and Ruth Silver Taub, who inspired the passage of the Women’s Bill of Rights; I was deeply grateful to be able to collaborate with them on putting some pressure on the City Manager to move forward.

Ad Hoc: Ending Domestic Violence

Good progress, Chris Demers is building a powerful report for council. I have some work to do for this committee that I am behind on, but I look forward to getting it done.

Ad Hoc: Protecting the Rights of People with Disabilities

Unfortunately, the commissioner leading this ad hoc has had to cycle off the commission, but I am hoping when Councilmember Dev Davis, Councilmember Lan Diep, and Councilmember Sylvia Arenas fill their constituents’ seats on the commission, one of the new members will take-up the mantle (Councilmember Davis’s seat has been empty since June, and the perspective of Willow Glen residents is missed).

In the meantime, the commissioner leading the other disability-services focused ad hoc will be trying to do this work justice, in addition to all of her other important work.

Ad Hoc: Protecting Environmental Sustainability Rights

Angie Lopez, the chair of this ad hoc committee, shared some photos of the ways in which San José city streets are being rutted by industrial traffic coming from city-owned land, pictures of hillsides stripped and potentially ripe for mudslides — all concerning and something I hope council responds to when we submit the report.

Ad Hoc: Protecting Justice-Impacted Children’s Rights

We discussed the best ways to improve how young people living in the nexus of the juvenile justice system and special education systems can get the help and support they need.

Ad Hoc: Protecting Immigrants’Rights

I shared this disturbing and validating article about how the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s interpretation of federal law has changed dramatically under the Drumpf administration. On a personal note, I haven’t gotten a call to respond to an ICE raid in my community in a few months, which I hope means more of my neighbors are safe. I know no one feels much safer and won’t until we have immigration reform. It’s now been 11 months since we requested ICE come and speak to us, and though we have been diligent in our follow-up, they haven’t accepted the invitation. Yet.

Note: Staff let us know that, because we had missed 2 months of meetings, we should be able to push the deadline for our ad hocs to April. That is good news, because particularly with vacancies, we could use the time. I’m hoping to have that timeline change confirmed today.

See everyone in 2019.

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