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American Canyon uses Deliberative Civic Engagement to Address Difficult Decisions

Case Story

American Canyon is a small but rapidly growing city in southern Napa County. Although it is a relatively young city (incorporated in 1992), there is already an established tradition of civic engagement there, according to city manager Richard Ramirez.

“The incorporation effort for this city was very difficult and failed two times, so there was a lot of energy in the new community. Subsequent city councils have tried to maintain that energy by getting people involved,” says Ramirez, although he acknowledges that “Sometimes you have to beat the bushes to get people involved.”

According to former Director of Public Works Robert Weil (now with the city of San Carlos), the best recent example of civic engagement in a public works project in American Canyon was a 14 month process completed in 2008 that was designed to incorporate diverse resident input into an integrated water resources management plan.

This plan was a weighty and contentious issue among residents and city leaders according to Weil and Ramirez, because:

  • The city had not increased water or sewer rates for over seven years, and was now considering raising rates significantly.
  • The city was subsidizing water and sewer operations with money that was meant to fund things like public safety and parks and recreation.
  • The city had grown significantly in a short time and the infrastructure was not in place to treat water for so many residents.
  • The council decided to create a deliberative process that involved a wider group of stakeholders than the “usual suspects” to be engaged in the difficult- and potentially unpopular- decisions that needed to be made regarding the city’s wastewater.

The council formed a diverse “Blue Ribbon” committee on water resources to help design a new water management plan. The committee was co-chaired by two city council members, ensuring that the findings of the committee would be communicated to decision makers. In fact, the city council made an upfront promise to honor whatever recommendations the committee made, a risky move considering that it could be a very unpopular decision to significantly raise residents water and sewer rates.

The committee was composed of about 35 people, including parents who had served on school site councils, business stakeholders, retired water professionals, a deacon who had never participated in local government, and other residents from new and established neighborhoods inside and outside the city. According to Ramirez, the city sought to involve “opinion molders” who were not otherwise involved in city business. Representatives from the planning commission, parks and recreation commission, and the open spaces advisory committee also appointed representatives to avoid the common problem of people working in “silos” on community issues.

Committee members were educated about water related issues in order to become authorities on the subject. Members joined different subcommittees in order to become expert in the different subject areas involved. Then these educated residents led public discussions throughout the community, to educate other residents and to get broad input before making their recommendations to the city council. These committee led dialogues included one in Spanish with a group of women studying for their citizenship exam and one in Tagalog, ensuring that newcomers in the community would have a voice in the process.

After many meetings over the course of more than a year, the blue ribbon committee presented their recommendations on watershed management, stone water retention and detention, open space management, and water purveying, treatment, and conservation to the city council. The council approved the entire plan, including a 36 percent increase in water and sewer rates over three years. Under proposition 218, the city was required to send out a protest ballot to all residents when proposing to raise utility rates, and if a majority of residents registered their protest the rate increase could be blocked. In this case, despite the drastic rate hike, only 1.8 percent of the protest ballots delivered were cast, and the city was able to raise the money necessary to update and fund their water treatment system. A group of residents organized to protest the measure, but they were unable to collect enough signatures to get it put on the ballot.

Both Weil and Ramirez attribute the lack of protest over the rate hikes to the extensive public outreach and involvement process that the city undertook. Ramirez estimates that the city spent about $75,000 on the 14 month process between staff time and consultant fees, but he feels the results warrant this investment.

“It was a highly successful process,” says Ramirez. “The city council has set the mold for future meaty public discussions. Whether the topic is economic development, growth, or investment in infrastructure, the mold has been cast for how city council will get residents involved.” The city council is currently forming a new panel using the “Blue Ribbon” model to analyze and make recommendations related to traffic services and infrastructure requirements. The city is facing the need to spend about $300 million dollars to maintain traffic services through 2030. Once again, a thorough, inclusive and deliberative process will inform the councils approach to a weighty public issue.

“The city council really respect the need to go slow to go fast on these weighty issues,” said Ramirez. “The manipulative process that some people are familiar with where the city staff decides what needs to happen and they try to figure out how to get public support for it won’t work anymore. If you want sustainable change you need a broad base of public support to maintain the change. From now on, addressing these weighty and complex local issues will require a deliberative civic engagement process where you are honestly asking leadership to take hands off wheel and allow public to be directly involved without a preconceived notion of what the end result is going to be. Today residents are more educated and invested than ever before, and they are linked in dozens of new communication networks, so trying to run complex issues through the old governance process is not going to work anymore.”

For more information please contact Richard Ramirez, City Manager of American Canyon: rramirez@ci.american-canyon.ca.us or 707-647-4519.
 

 

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