Engagement Leads to Greater Trust for Town of Paradise
Community: City of Paradise (Butte County, Northern California) Population: 26,000
In the fall of 2014 the Town of Paradise’s Town Council embarked on a public engagement effort to gauge resident preferences around four priority budget areas: fire suppression, police, road maintenance and animal control. If a ballot measure (“Measure C”), calling for a temporary ½ cent sales tax increase, passed in the November election, the City Council would need to decide how to allocate the funds.
The Town of Paradise was the recipient of technical assistance from the Institute for Local Government’s (ILG) Public Engagement Program (funded through The James Irvine Foundation). Through this in-kind public engagement planning and implementation work, the town embarked on a strategic, outcome-driven resident engagement effort that culminated in three town-hall type workshops. Key components of the technical assistance effort included planning, promotion, and facilitation of in-person events.
The planning team formed included Town department heads representing Finance, Public Works, Fire, and Police, a Town Councilman, along with the Town Manager and Administrative Assistant. The team met on a regular basis, often weekly, to ensure optimum preparation. The Town Council and staff were pleased with the results as residents with a wide diversity of views attended the events and Measure C, a ½ sales tax (automatically expiring in six years) passed at the November 2014 election.
- Planned, thoughtful and inclusive engagement strategy.
- Town worked the local community groups to engage residents of Paradise.
- Three town hall information sessions were convenient, accessible and open to all to provide comments and feedback on current town services and inquire about Measure C.
- Working with ILG allowed Town staff to have a neutral third-party facilitate the workshops. Neutral facilitation built trust with participants.
- Having a professional public engagement practitioner assist with the planning of the engagement effort allowed Town staff to think beyond what had always been done and have the confidence to try innovative engagement approaches and techniques.
- The format of the workshops was specifically designed to provide opportunity for one on one conversation and question and answer for residents with Town leaders, and to minimize opportunity for grandstanding. Giving residents the opportunity to stand up, move around the room and have formal and informal conversation signaled that the dialogue opportunity was not traditional (aka 3 minutes at a microphone).
- Leaders and staff would like to have hosted additional sessions in different locations.
- Including staff at the initial planning stage ensured buy in and their input resulted in critical tweaks to the workshop approach. The team building that resulted from the workshop planning effort was a residual positive outcome. Staff reported feeling supported to succeed.
- Staff enjoyed being part of the presentations and being responsive to the community. It was helpful to have all the departments represented as the town administration functions as a team and share “their story” to talk about the quality of work they provide and what they would like to provide with adequate staffing levels.
- It is worthwhile to continue to engage with community groups for transparency and clarity on Town of Paradise administration and decision-making process.
- Maintaining a focus on public engagement requires steady investment of staff/consultant time.
Rest of the Story
Throughout the great recession, the Town of Paradise endured significant cuts in personnel levels leaving the town understaffed and the needs of its residents underserved, and in some cases unmet. There simply was too much to do and too few resources to address the community’s needs in animal control, engineering, planning and public safety. Measure C created an opportunity for the town’s leadership and staff to engage with residents in a new and dynamic way.
Town of Paradise staff and leadership wanted to engage the public with facts on current staffing, operating budget, community needs and gaps in services. Additionally, they wanted to invite the public to share in their ideas for funding priorities should the ballot measure pass. Town Manager Laura Gill reached out to the Institute for Local Government for technical assistance to learn about engagement strategies and how to make the most of the resources expended on an engagement. After discussions between ILG and Paradise, the following goals were outlined:
- Sustained and dynamic engagement among residents, community groups and town leadership and administrators;
- Clarity about how the temporary sales tax could help the town provide services and supports to residents and the greater community of the Town of Paradise; and
- Greater trust among residents, community groups, and town leadership and administration.
Summer and Fall Engagement Efforts
Following the council’s June decision to put the measure on the ballot, town leadership and administrators visited local community groups to provide a status update on the state of the Town of Paradise. Laura Gill, Town Manager, spoke at various meetings including the chamber of commerce, Rotary, Lions Club and the Board of Realtors to inform residents and community about the current state of affairs at the town. The town engineer and finance manager participated in these engagement opportunities giving updates on current conditions of the town’s roads and budget, respectively. The mayor also presented at the local chamber of commerce, and said “he would like to continue to maintain a direct level of engagement,” reflected Gill.
In September and October, staff and the town council continued to provide updates to groups and worked with the Institute for Local Government to facilitate a series of budget sessions to further engage with the residents and business owners on the state of the town and the opportunity presented by Measure C. While the town could not campaign, the leadership and administration could provide essential information to the community about the operating budget, staffing levels and impact a tax increase could have on the town.
Paradise leaders and staff increased engagement through three meetings at the town council headquarters at different times of day to ensure that people with a variety of schedules could participate. The sessions were tailored to fit the needs and culture of the town. After a short welcome and the Pledge of Allegiance by the mayor, the ILG Public Engagement Program manager Sarah Rubin provided the facilitation of the event. After hearing from the town Manager, participants met directly with department staff at “stations”. Once the participants had a chance to talk with staff, the group reconvened for a report out. Staff gave presentations to clarify the impact of recent budget setbacks on specific services, staffing the short and long-term implications of the current budget, as well the potential impact of the ½ cent sales-tax measure. Participants were then invited to share feedback on priorities for town services through an informal poll.
The effectiveness of communicating about the town’s needs and levels of service, in combination of requesting feedback for town priorities proved successful. The outreach process encouraged participants of all backgrounds and interests to share their concerns, ask questions and to engage directly with city leaders and staff. While many residents in the Town of Paradise are not in favor of additional taxes, there was clarity in the town’s request and how it would be spent, with an emphasis on transparency. In the end, the town passed Measure C by a narrow margin.