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Marin County Holds Public Forum on Pension Issues

Case Story

Summary

On April 3, 2012, the Marin County Board of Supervisors convened a public forum on the topic of developing “sustainable” pensions for Marin County government.  The event was an educational opportunity for members of the public to learn more about pension issues and reform efforts, to share their views, and to have their questions answered. An additional goal was to develop a more shared understanding of the pension facts as well as to identify key differences in opinion. 

Close to 200 people attended the public forum that was held in the evening at a local community center.

The event was successful in providing a great deal of information about the history and scope of the pension-related challenges facing the county, and in outlining current efforts underway to address these problems at the county and state levels. 

Introductory remarks and background on Marin’s pension program were made by the Board of Supervisors’ Chair and the meeting facilitator.  There were presentations by a panel of individuals holding widely diverse views on the status of the pension system and necessary reforms.  Following the panel of speakers there was a significant amount of time for participants to ask questions of county officials and other members of the panel, and to hear the responses offered. 

Evaluation forms indicated participants thought the pension “basics” presentation, and the panel presentation and questions and answers were all valuable.  An editorial in the Marin Independent Journal noted that, “(t)he large turnout for Tuesday night’s forum on public employee pensions should dispel any reservations county supervisors might have had about hosting it.”

Process Highlights and Results

The session was held at a community location, rather than at county offices, to help increase the number and breadth of attendees.  An estimated 170 people attended, in addition to the participating speakers, facilitators and Marin County officials.  The forum began with welcoming remarks by the Chair of the county board of supervisors and an overview of the agenda.  The meeting’s lead facilitator, hired by the county to help design and lead the forum process, followed with a general background on the county’s public employee pensions.  See http://www.marincounty.org/Home/Main/~/media/Files/MarinGov/Pensions/Pensions-Basics-Presentation-040312.ashx

A number of speakers then provided wide-ranging information and perspectives on pensions, pension problems, and present and potential approaches to creating more “sustainable” public pensions.

The panel of speakers included:

  • Richard Gillihan, California Department of Finance;
  • Denis Rice, Former member, Marin County Board of Supervisors;
  • Larry Chu, Larkspur City Council;
  • Phillip Thomas, Marin Association of Public Employees;
  • Gregg Adam, Carroll, Burdick, McDonough, LLP; and
  • Matthew Hymel, Marin County Administrator.

Both during and following the panel presentations, questions from participants were collected on cards that were sorted by the President of the local League of Women Voters.  After a period of speaker responses to these individual questions, the attendees collectively, at their respective tables, identified additional questions that were presented to speakers. 

Some attendees who had indicated ahead of time their intent to walk out of the forum if there were small group discussions did leave at that point in the meeting, although some did decide to stay.  The majority of the audience remained until the end of the evening. The forum concluded with a statement from each panelist.  Those attending the forum included pension reforms activists, county employees and other county residents. Due to outreach efforts in the meeting invitation process, the County CAO reported that attendees represented a broader cross section of the community than at a forum on this same topic a year earlier.

Participants were invited to submit thoughts and feedback on a combined worksheet and evaluation form.  About a third turned these in at the end of the evening.  Feedback indicated they thought the “basics” presentation, panel presentation and questions and answers were all valuable. Several volunteered comments thanking the County for this effort. 

Members of the Marin League of Woman Voters and two additional community volunteers, were recruited and prepared as “table” facilitators for the public forum.

In an editorial appearing on April 8, 2012 in the Marin Independent  Journal,  it was noted that, “(t)he large turnout for Tuesday night’s forum on public employee pensions should dispel any reservations county supervisors might have had about hosting it.”

The editorial also stated that “(t)he full house at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael was a reflection that the public — including public employees — have a lot of questions, concerns and worries about pensions and their growing drain on local government budgets and services.  View the editorial at http://www.marinij.com/opinion/ci_20343519/editorial-marin-pension-forum-shows-need-reforms?IADID=Search-www.marinij.com-www.marinij.com.

Lessons Learned

  • Detach the public engagement activity from any immediate major decisions on the topic by the local legislative body.  Timing the engagement in a “pause” before decision making creates a more conducive environment for in-depth sharing of information about such a controversial issue as there will be less inclination for participants to feel the need to rush into fixed “for and against” arguments.
  • Form an inclusive planning committee, representing the various stakeholders and viewpoints, to assist with public engagement design and outreach.  This can reduce rumors, increase trust in the planned engagement effort, add to the breadth of participation, and increase the responsiveness of the meeting format.
  • Communicate with local media about the purpose of the planned engagement activity.  Ask for their help in attracting participants and informing the public about this complex issue.
  • Given the “heat” and complexity of the public employee pension issue, a process approach that emphasizes information sharing and questions and answers may be the best starting point.  After an atmosphere of shared understanding and greater trust is established, the public can be invited to a more deliberative process about options for specific policy solutions
  • Knowing the likely attendees ahead of time, perhaps through an RSVP process, will help an agency match up the amount and level of “technical” information to the audience.  Note, though, that too much information will make it more difficult for participants to retain any of it.
  • Given the complexity of the issue, and the often concurrent misinformation, an educational effort should extend beyond any public forum alone and be built into the local agency’s website and communications plan.
  • Local agency employees and their representative organizations will have an interest in this topic, and their participation should be both invited and transparent.
  • There may be members of the community who will see any plans for small group discussions as distractions at best or manipulation at worst.  Be clear about meeting purposes, agenda and ground rules.  It is also generally a good idea, within an overall public engagement strategy, to give people different options for participation.
  • Well-prepared and respected small group (table) facilitators are an important asset.  Make sure they understand and are prepared for their role, respond to challenges by participants in a courteous and flexible manner, and know where to go for help during the meeting.
  • Be sure to report the results of the session back to the participants and the community at large.  If the session was oriented to answering questions, be sure to create a mechanism, such as a website, to provide answers to the questions that were not able to be covered.

Resources to Learn More

The County has established a Marin County Pensions Information webpage (http://www.marincounty.org/Home/Main/Pensions) for community members interested in information “about the cost of public employee pensions and how to make them more sustainable over time.” Information about the April public forum, including videos of the speakers and documents referenced and distributed by the speakers, may also be found on the county’s pensions information web page.

The county website also provides an ongoing venue for resident to submit questions and suggestions about how to make pension information useful to as many Marin residents as possible.

An overview of Marin County government’s pension system is available in the publication, Marin County Government Basic Facts about Pensions http://www.marincounty.org/Home/Main/~/media/Files/MarinGov/Pensions/BasicFacts_about_Pensions.ashx.

In December 2011, the Marin County Board of Supervisors adopted pension reform guidelines, which endorse California Governor Brown’s 12-point pension reform plan http://gov.ca.gov/docs/Twelve_Point_Pension_Reform_10.27.11.pdf.

The Institute for Local Government’s publication, A Local Official’s Guide to Pension Terminology (www.ca-ilg.org/PensionGlossary) was distributed at the public forum on April 3rd.

The Institute for Local Government gratefully acknowledges contributions to this story by Susan Clark, Director, Common Knowledge.

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