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Pete Peterson: Deficits Create Surpluses in Democracy in Local Government

As budget crises multiply, the addition of civic engagement paves the way for true community solutions.

They may be struggling to cope with California’s budget crisis, but local community leaders are unable to turn to the Federal Reserve or the U.S. Treasury for a bailout. Instead, they’re being forced to make painful decisions about what services to preserve — and which ones to trim or cut altogether. Faced with such difficult choices, a growing number of cities and school districts are trying to involve local citizens more directly in the decision-making process.

Pete Peterson
Pete Peterson

The late Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., once cynically called involving citizens in local government decisions “a device whereby public officials induce nonpublic individuals to act in a way the public officials desire.” But that was said several decades ago. Today, the budget crisis along with a growing number of successful civic engagement projects around city budgets both inside and outside California, are proving that involving citizens can be done legitimately and productively.

In 2005, facing a structural deficit of $2.9 million deficit, the city of Menlo Park realized it needed to reach out to its residents to both inform them of the tough choices ahead and to solicit their feedback. The project, called “Your City/Your Decision,” involved mailing to every household actual budget sheets with line items and dollar figures. More than 1,600 of these were returned, becoming the basis of a series of face-to-face workshops with residents and public officials. The results of these deliberations informed the eventual decisions made by the City Council.

In 2006, Morgan Hill also battled a multimillion-dollar shortfall. The city manager and city council invited its residents to a series of “Community Conversations” — two-and-a-half-hour facilitated discussions about the future of the city and what balance of service cuts and revenue increases they would be willing to incur. More than 300 people participated in the workshops, which were designed in coordination between city officials and the civic engagement firm, Viewpoint Learning Inc. of La Jolla. Rather than debating particular line items, these dialogues centered on various “visions” for Morgan Hill — each with consequent budgetary implications.

This past fall, the organization I direct, Common Sense California, conducted a first-of-its-kind Citizen Engagement Grant Program. In about three months, we received more than 70 submissions seeking financial and technical assistance to launch civic engagement projects on issues ranging from city budgeting to school district curriculum decisions. We have already awarded more than a half-dozen “Catalyst Grants” (of up to $7,500) to cities like Brea and La Habra in Orange County, which are planning participatory budgeting projects, and Colma (population 1,600) in the Bay Area, which is convening its residents to formulate a citywide economic development plan.

We also offered the city of Salinas a $25,000 “Common Sense Grant” in support of its upcoming program to convene residents around service prioritization as a result of significant budget cutbacks.

“The gap between service expectations by the public and the public sectors inability to deliver those services needs to be bridged,” Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue said. “Organized and informed civic engagement is one of the best, if not only, vehicles to energize a grassroots movement to demand change ... and understand what the challenges are from the government side to meet expectations.”

Local government leaders are realizing it makes more sense to involve their citizenry in the process from the beginning — to avoid having to deal with criticism after the fact, or even having to undo decisions and start all over again. But they are also reaping other social capital benefits. As one Southern California city manager recently told me about a civic involvement project in his community, “Honestly, my senior staff and I could have that (budget issue) fixed in about 10 minutes, but there would be ... no understanding and no community building. Plus, we’ve all done it that way for years and it ain’t that fun. This is.”

The challenge is how to encourage citizen participation in a way that constructively contributes to the decision-making process, and isn’t just viewed as an irritation — or worse — by local officials, nor a lobbying effort by residents. Reviewing the many Californian civic participation projects over the last few years, we’ve learned that legitimate efforts have similar components.

» First, there is a true willingness on the part of municipal leaders to intentionally incorporate the results of the dialogues into their decision-making process.

» Next, there is an agreement between city leaders and civic “stakeholders” on the information and questions, which will be presented to the general public.

» Then there is an intensive outreach effort to elicit a fair representation of the community.

» Finally, rather than the standard “town-meeting” scenario, the community conversation is a structured and facilitated dialogue between residents, as well as between residents and city officials.

As California’s budget crisis deepens, there are now compelling reasons for our state’s leaders to engage residents in the difficult policy decisions facing their cities and school districts. Seeking the input of the fully informed citizen has never been more crucial.

— Pete Peterson is the executive director of Common Sense California and lectures on civic engagement at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.

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