WALNUT CREEK -- The question is, "What should Walnut Creek's new wayfinding system look like?"

As of Wednesday morning, 24 people had offered up answers to that question, all viewable to anyone on the Internet. And 117 others -- including city officials -- had sifted through those answers.

All had logged on to the City of Walnut Creek website, gone to the new "Open Town Hall" section and typed in their opinions about a plan to create a coordinated sign system within the city guiding people to local landmarks and popular spots.

This "wayfinding" plan is the first topic for discussion for the newly created Walnut Creek Open Town Hall, and there will be more, vows Gayle Vassar, the city's outreach coordinator.

The Open Town Hall on the city's website is designed to let people discuss issues or answer questions, or offer opinions and suggestions on chosen topics. Open Town Hall is operated by Peak Democracy, a nonpartisan company whose mission is to promote and enable meaningful civic engagement.

What makes it more than the comment section on any local blog is a tech platform that shows whether comments come from within the host city, or even from which part of the city; and the discussion must remain civil. Commenters provide names and addresses, but can ask their names not be shown. Also, Peak Democracy moderates the comments to squash rants, personal attacks and off-topic tangents. Individuals can post no more than one comment on any subject.


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"We want people to feel comfortable about posting their thoughts and giving us their input," Vassar said. "To me, it's just like talking at a public meeting -- being civil but having freedom of speech."

Mayor Cindy Silva said efforts like Open Town Hall should help city leaders get more information early in the planning stages of projects, perhaps touching on possible alternative approaches and helping set a better direction long before those projects reach the formal public hearing stage.

"It's an incredibly powerful way for people to offer input early on, in a convenient way to voice their questions or concerns," she said.

Representatives of Peak Democracy, based in the small town of Trinidad in redwood country, speak with leaders in each city (or public agency) that hires them to learn what people in each city want, the important issues in each city, and the values of each city. Open Town Hall is in 48 cities and counties in the U.S.; two public agencies also are clients. California client cities include Fremont Vallejo and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Other cities have similar website discussion sites; Concord, for example, has its ConcordConnects.org, created by the national firm MindMixer.

"There's a large variation in how cities interact with their citizens," said Robert Vogel, the CEO of Peak Democracy. "In Berkeley, known for 'free speech,' discussion might be different than in San Ramon (another Open Town Hall client city), or Walnut Creek. We become familiar with the different requirements of each city."

Questions, or issues, can be whatever the cities want them to be; Vassar said the plan is for at least one new Open Town Hall question every month.

To reach Walnut Creek's Open Town Hall discussion, go to http://www.ci.walnut-creek.ca.us/citygov/opentownhall.asp

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