At a time when the mayor’s office has been under increasing scrutiny about corralling public comment during city council meetings and corralling protesters after dark, City Clerk LaTonda Simmons is hoping to funnel that civic energy into productive public forums.

In February, the clerk’s office added an e-comment feature to Speak Up Oakland, a communication platform designed to solicit and increase communication between residents and civic leaders. The site is designed to use online tools to increase the opportunities for civic engagement and participation.

“The city clerk would like for this to be a go-to site for residents to communicate with city staff and council,” said Oakland resident and public health advocate Tonya Love.

Simmons initiated, implemented and oversees the new e-comment feature on legislative calendars, which also serves as a digital engagement module of Speak Up Oakland, according to Love.

Love is known in Oakland for live-tweeting from city council meetings and promoting the Twitter hashtag #oakmtg for coordinated response. Simmons reached out to Love to help promote Speak Up Oakland.

“It’s difficult to get community participation because city meetings tend to take place during times that are hard for citizens to attend,” Love said. “To have a place where someone can submit an online comment that could be acknowledged by city staff and council excited me.”

Simmons has built her reputation for political neutrality with a focus on ramping up transparency in government. She encourages public interaction in ways that enhance that transparency and dialogue.

“Even when it isn’t all flowery and happy, it’s the public’s government and it’s their right to voice their opinion,” Simmons said in a post on Love’s website.

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City Clerk LaTonda Simmons

After working her way through the city ranks as an analyst, Simmons attended OpenOakland’s 2013 CityCamp to explore ways of making government more transparent and civic engagement more meaningful. She found a like-hearted civic champion in Love, who is involved with Open Oakland, a Code for America-sponsored consortium dedicated to improving quality of life for Oaklanders.

Now the challenge is to entice the more than 400,000 residents of Oakland to speak up.

“There is a lot of work to be done to even get 10 percent (participation),” Love said.

The site encourages participation with a basic question at the top of the page.

“How can we improve the City of Oakland?” is asked as a banner question with an easy spot to fill in and submit. More nuanced interaction and theme related topics are available on the site.

Mayor Libby Schaaf posted a brief survey about her recently released budget on this site. Eighty-four people have responded so far.

Erica Terry Derryck, the mayor’s director of communications, said the mayor has a long track record of promoting transparency and openness in government.

“In developing her budget proposal for Fiscal Years 2015-2017, Mayor Schaaf has continued to support the City’s partnership with openbudgetoakland.org,” Derryck emailed.  “… The Speak Up platform is another in this list of tools and tactics that the City of Oakland is using to foster community engagement that meets people where they are at.”

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The Speak Up Oakland website encourages civic participation.

At a time when protest and ire is high and criticism of government’s handling of public demonstrations remains, the relative calm of an online forum offers a potential solution. Love says she is “pleasantly surprised” with an uptick of site activity during city council meetings.

“I think having open dialogue is important. It’s hard to avoid having personal feelings involved because local policy has a direct impact on residents,” Love said.

The site, she hopes, is way to increase communication without sinking into personal attacks.

Simmonds office monitors the site and acts as moderators of public comment.

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