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City of Daly City – Budget Deliberative Forum Story

Case Story

Community: City of Daly City (San Mateo County)

Population: 107,099


Similar to many municipalities in California, the Bay Area community of Daly City experienced declining revenues from sales and property taxes in 2009 as a result of the national and global economic downturn, as well as state “take-aways” of local tax revenues. Faced with difficult decisions of how to develop a balanced budget, the city sought to educate and involve residents in a deliberative process designed to identify community values and priorities that would determine funding levels for city programs and services.

Process Highlights and Results

  • About 270 residents participated in one of four facilitated educational community forums held at various times and locations during the fall of 2009
  • Over 1300 people completed mail-in or online surveys providing additional resident input on priority services and programs
  • Along with the survey, an educational newsletter was mailed to every household in the city to provide all residents relevant facts about city revenue sources, services, and spending
  • Outreach and educational materials were made available in Spanish, Tagalog, and Chinese and foreign language interpretation was provided at the forums
  • Input from the public forums, surveys, and an employee engagement process will be presented to the city council by the city manager in December and will be considered as the council and city manager work on the next two year budget

Lessons Learned (from City Manager Pat Martel)

  • Having public meetings in an environment less intimidating than a city council meeting, facilitated by residents who were commissioners or citizen academy graduates rather than city staff, created an equal playing field for a community conversation where the pubic was willing to weigh in on some tough questions in a very productive way.
  • The lesson learned is that deliberative public engagement can be useful and we have to continue this community building process.
  • It doesn’t work very well when people come in with a strong position and are not willing to yield. Having a dialogue where we just listen as opposed to trying to lead the discussion goes a lot further in terms of empowering the community to have an opportunity to help shape the outcome.

Resources to Learn More

The Rest of the Story…

“We want to know what you place the highest value on so we can take that into consideration when preparing the budget,” Daly City Manager Pat Martel told fifty diverse residents who turned out for a Thursday evening community conversation in October of 2009.

The City held four such public forums over five weeks in the fall of 2009 in various parts of town and at different times- half during the day on Saturdays and half on weekday evenings. A total of about 270 residents participated in the forums. In addition, a special edition of the city community newsletter with extensive information on city revenue sources, services, and spending and a mail-in survey was mailed to every home in the city and posted on the city website in order to gather informed opinions from those not attending the deliberative forums. The survey was made available in Tagalog, Spanish, and Chinese so that residents still learning English could participate, and fliers promoting the forums in multiple languages were distributed to local community organizations and libraries.

Each forum was hosted by the city manager and city staff in conjunction with a neutral third party facilitator from the non-profit Peninsula Conflict Resource Center. This facilitator in turn trained community members who were graduates of the city’s citizen academy or members of city commissions, committees and boards to act as small group facilitators and to record the input shared by participating residents. Forums began with a welcome and background information on the city’s financial situation from Martel, followed by a visual presentation by City Finance Director Don McVey. Attendees were given an opportunity to ask these and other city staff in attendance direct questions, and also to discuss alternatives and priorities in small groups while a volunteer facilitator recorded their input on large flip charts. Participants discussed the qualities of a good community, and what city services they were and were not willing to see reduced or cut.

“We will track the trends we see in the input from these meetings and the survey as well as an ongoing facilitated employee engagement process and make a presentation to the city council in December on what we have learned,” Martel told the meeting participants. With over 270 residents participating in the community conversations and over 1300 surveys completed, this report should give the council valuable information about the priorities of their constituents as they make the difficult decisions and necessary trade-offs to produce a city budget. “The most useful part was hearing what the public had to say in the absence of public officials,” says Martel. “They were comfortable enough to feel free to offer suggestions… it will be a little easier for council to make hard decisions about reducing services since we heard from our public engagement process that people were willing to accept certain trade-offs to make sure that their highest priority services and programs would not be affected by the budget reduction.” Martel was very encouraged by the high level of participation and that more than the ‘usual suspects’ came out to participate in the community forums. She says the city will continue to pursue public engagement and community building processes that inform residents and encourage them participate in constructive dialogues around other issues, such as the often volatile topic of development.




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