City Hall is about to hire a "civic engagement coordinator" who will reach out to the public on issues ranging from potholes and streetlights to property taxes and streetcar alignments.
The idea, according to City Councilman Luke Garrott, is to get the public involved at the beginning of discussions on any given issue, so they don't feel disenfranchised after speaking at public hearings that traditionally come at the end of the legislative process.
"It's not much more than window dressing," he said of such hearings that come after weeks or months of discussions when positions have become hardened. "Public input needs to come early in the [decision-making] process."
Recent, high-profile issues where residents criticized City Hall for lax public outreach include Mayor Ralph Becker's plan to extend the Sugar House Streetcar line north on 1100 East from 2100 South and the City Council's move to hike property taxes by 13.8 percent, said Chairman Kyle LaMalfa at the council's semi-annual retreat Tuesday.
"The public engagement was less than it could have been," he said.
Council members are regularly criticized for having made up their minds even before issues have been fully discussed, said Councilman Charlie Luke.
"That's not the case," he said. "But getting the word out earlier will alleviate some of that mistrust."
The civic engagement coordinator would work in the Department of Community and Economic Development and, as such, technically be in the employ of the mayor.
But David Everitt, the mayor's chief of staff, said the new coordinator would be assigned to do outreach for the council as well as the mayor and other city departments.
Exactly how that would work on issues where the mayor and council are at odds, as they were in the recent property tax hike, remains unclear.
But Everitt said engaging the public doesn't, in and of itself, constitute a conflict. On the tax issue, members of the public could weigh in on either side, he said.
Salt Lake City is a better place when the public believes it has been heard, said Councilman Stan Penfold.
"Success is seeing the value of engagement in the end process when citizens feel like they've been heard."