First Municipal Citizens Assembly in California

The northern California city of Petaluma (pop. 60,000) recently budgeted $450,000 for a Citizens’ Assembly chosen by lot to recommend a plan for the future use of its municipal fairground–a contentious issue that had been plaguing the city for several years. The Petaluma CA is the first municipal citizens assembly in California. The plan passed the city council unanimously.

The panel runs from mid-May to mid-July 2022, will deliberate over 90 hours, and is tasked with providing three policy reports on the question, “How might we use the City’s fairgrounds property to create the experiences, activities, resources, and places that our community needs and desires now and for the foreseeable future?”

The panelists will develop, write, and edit the reports themselves, and will deliver them to the Fair Board and City Council. The reports are advisory, though the council and board are expected to thoroughly consider and publicly respond to them.  

Healthy Democracy, best known for their work on the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review, has been designated moderator for the CA. Their work involves design and implementation of the CA process, and facilitating deliberation.

The city manager of Petaluma had attended the panel presentation on CAs at the California League of Cities Conference in September, 2021, referenced in Equality by Lot last October (Lottery Selected Panels in California (maybe)). The panel consisted of two city council members, plus Linn Davis of Healthy Democracy, and myself. The presentation resulted from advocacy work by Public Access Democracy (PAD), a California non-profit whose mission is to promote deliberative democracy in government by investing decision making power in citizen assemblies chosen by lot.

The United States has lagged other countries implementing municipal citizens assemblies, despite the pioneering work of Ned Crosby in Minnesota in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. This may be about to change. Bard College (New York) has announced a three-day workshop in July 2022 that will introduce public servants, local politicians, and civic leaders from across the political spectrum to key elements of citizens assemblies. (Click here for more information. Email plindsay@bard.edu with any questions.)

One Response

  1. Thanks very much, Wayne, for drawing attention to this application of sortition.

    An article in the Petaluma Argus-Courier has some additional background and some reactions reflecting the various interests around this issue. A very interesting read. For example:

    Council member Dave King also pushed back at calls to let all city voters weigh in on ways to move forward by incorporating a ballot measure.

    “There are a lot of ways to go about making a public decision, and most of the time we hear from people who are really interested in the issue at hand and have come to the council meetings,” King said. “And we don’t hear from the entire community. There are literally 40,000 adults in this city who have never once come to a council meeting to weigh in on an issue.”

    But those in favor of maintaining current uses raised concerns about representation for those living outside of Petaluma city limits, including those who have participated in the fair’s numerous offerings for generations.

    One point regarding the cost: It turns out there are going to be 30 to 40 panelists, each receiving $20 per hour. Thus the total compensation of the panelists is going to be about $2,000 per panelist, or about $80,000 in total. The bulk of the budget goes elsewhere then.

    Like

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