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Involving the Public: New Challenges; New Tools


On issues relating to infrastructure or the environment (or on almost any public matter) not all county residents are likely to see things the same way. For county officials who have decision-making and project implementation responsibilities, this can cause headaches. Increasingly, however, new approaches are being found to successfully engage the public in getting projects done, and usually done better.

San Luis Obispo County embarked on a civic engagement effort to gather public input and support for a wastewater treatment plant in the unincorporated community of Los Osos. There were some initial failed attempts. While technical studies had been completed, the questions on the table related “to feasibility and community acceptance,” according to John Waddell, project manager for the county’s public works department.

According to Waddell, “the county board of supervisors and department of public works didn’t want to pick a technology or solution and just move forward with it – we wanted to explore a wide range of options for technologies and plant location, and then work with the community to figure out the final details of the project.”

The board of supervisors appointed a technical advisory committee composed of community residents to study relevant issues, consult the community, and advise the board. Small and large public meetings were held and residents were also engaged one on one and in small groups at community events. Informational brochures and surveys were mailed, and a project website was developed to share technology alternatives and possible site locations and to collect resident input.

After a year of community engagement efforts, 80% of Los Osos property owners voted in favor of a nearly $25,000 per home tax assessment that will help pay for the new plant, a project estimated to cost between $150 and 170 million.

This is just one example. Rich Gordon, in a recent issue of this magazine, called attention to the work of San Mateo County’s public works director whose resident involvement and education efforts – including a new course in local governmental financing – resulted in the cooperation of the local homeowner’s association and the passage of a new sewer fee rate hike.

Send us your civic engagement stories

The Institute for Local Government, the research affiliate of CSAC and the League of California Cities, is collecting such civic engagement-related case stories from counties around the state and developing civic engagement resources for county officials that will help with their efforts to involve residents in local decision-making.

Public engagement is fast becoming a competency required for work across a wide range of local issues. With SB 375 now law, and with requirements in the bill relating to civic engagement in these regional transportation and land use matters, local officials will want to draw on best practices for involving residents and others. In addition to the Institute’s more general civic engagement materials, we are planning to develop resources to support participatory approaches specific to SB375-related planning efforts.

The Institute is also gathering case stories and best practices related to civic engagement in local planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address other climate change issues. A guide to more effectively engage immigrant communities was recently published by the Institute’s Collaborative Governance Initiative, and new resources relating to public involvement in budgeting, enhancing participation through local clergy and congregations, and assessing civic engagement processes are in development.

If your county is involving the public on issues of infrastructure, climate change, agency budgeting or other matters, please let us know – we want to help share your story - at


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