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Santa Rosa Sets the Table for Good Public Engagement

Case Story

Community: City of Santa Rosa, County of Sonoma

Population: 169,292


The City of Santa Rosa has increased its use of public engagement for a variety of issues while only increasing its staff dedicated to the effort by one. In 2011, the city hired a community engagement coordinator who created a Discussion Inspiring Neighborhood Engagement (DINE) Program. The program utilizes volunteers to host and facilitate dinner events where community members discuss complex issues facing the city in a casual and comfortable setting.The effort has literally brought residents “to the table” who have never before participated in a local decision making process.

Program Highlights

  • Volunteers host and facilitate the dinner meetings which allows the city to enjoy the results of the community input at a relatively low cost.
  • Because the topic changes, the city is able to use the same format while creating a unique event with new participants each time.
  • The city is able to engage residents who speak a variety of languages by matching interested residents with a volunteer hosts who speaks the same language.
  • In 2012, 103 residents participated in the DINE event focused on budgeting. This number was compared to the three residents who attended the city council budget hearing in the previous year.

Lessons Learned

  • The experience created is just as important as the information gathered. A positive experience will result in ongoing interaction, interest and participation.
  • It gets easier each time. Once a base of facilitators and hosts is established, and a positive experience is created, more people are willing to further participate and engage.
  • The feedback gathered at each meeting, and shared with City staff and elected officials is key. It helps identify priorities, communication preferences and future engagement opportunities.

The Rest of the Story

The City of Santa Rosa has created a winning recipe for public engagement through its Discussion Inspiring Neighborhood Engagement (DINE) Program. The program not only provides the city with important feedback about local decision making and priorities, it is helping create a sense of community through dinner gatherings and discussions. 

The DINE program is driven by a full-time public engagement coordinator who is responsible for the community outreach and coordination of volunteers.  The public engagement coordinator reaches out to neighborhood associations, houses or worship, cultural and ethnic organizations, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations to identify participants for the DINE dinners. The city identifies one of these community members, through and online sign-up process, to be the host at each of the DINE gatherings. The host assumes financial responsibility and provides a location for the dinner. In some cases, the host coordinates a potluck or chooses to use a community meeting center for the venue. Each dinner gathering is also attended by a facilitator, typically either master’s students in Organizational Development or volunteer mediators, who helps guide the dinner conversation in an unbiased and non-judgmental way.  The facilitators are often identified community leaders or students perusing their Master’s Degree at the local college. The facilitators meet with city staff ahead of time for training and are given a list of questions to help keep the conversation on track.

During the DINE events, residents address topics related to local decision making such as the budget, community engagement and education. While the city chose the topic for the first meeting, other meeting topics were recommended by community members at the subsequent DINE event.

Approximately one dozen DINE events often take place throughout the city on the same night. The city finds that holding the events on a Friday night encourages involvement from residents that may find it difficult to attend city council meeting on Tuesday nights. As a result, the city says they are getting feedback from more residents that work full-time and from those that have young children.

The public engagement coordinator says the DINE program illustrates the importance of “showing up”. If someone who is tasked with bringing a dish to the potluck doesn’t attend, then the meal is dramatically affected.

  The DINE Program is not the only activity on the part-time public engagement coordinators plate. She also supports the community volunteer program, coffee with a local leader and resident recognition programs such as “The Mighty Peacock Award” that is given to residents who have gone above and beyond to strengthen the community. 

Resources to Learn More

City of Santa Rosa Public Engagement Program

City of Santa Rosa Dine Program

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