Joe Mathews went to the Californian city of Petaluma to learn what might become of the world’s ugliest dogs - and saw the future of democracy. Here is his report.
The future of democracy arrived in the form of the Petaluma Fairgrounds Advisory Panel, a form of a citizens’ assembly, a type of democratic body gaining in popularity worldwide.
Citizens’ assemblies are composed of everyday people, chosen by lottery. The assemblies are supposed to offer a way around money-corrupted elections, powerful lobbyists, and polarization that makes it hard for elected governments to solve complex issues.
Averting a community-wide fight
Petaluma’s leaders decided to try a citizens’ assembly to avert a community-wide fight over the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. The property is home to an annual five-day Fair and its signature event, the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest. The site also hosts a speedway, schools, emergency shelters, and so many different events that Petalumans have come to depend on it.
So when city officials said they want to rethink the fairgrounds’ future, Petalumans worried. Conflict loomed between the city, the fair, and the obscure state agency that manages the property. How to avoid fighting and litigation?
$450,000 for the citizens' assembly
Petaluma’s answer: spend $450,000 to hire the Oregon-based nonprofit Healthy Democracy, to organize a citizens’ assembly to answer this question: “How might we use the City’s fairgrounds property to create the experiences, activities, resources, and places that our community needs and desires now and for the foreseeable future?”
The process started with mailing 10,000 randomly selected residential addresses, inviting people to participate in the panel. A few hundred said yes. From that group, Healthy Democracy used a computer program to create 1,000 randomized potential panels of 36 people, each representative of Petaluma by age, gender, race/ethnicity, location, housing status, educational attainment, and disability. In April, organizers selected one of those panels by lottery.
81 hours of meetings
Unable to find a location at the fairgrounds itself - its venues were booked - the panel met at a community center and at Kenilworth Junior High. Over three months, it held 81 hours of meetings. This wasn’t volunteer work. Panelists received a stipend, equivalent to $20 per hour, as well as child care and elder care, reimbursement for transportation costs, laptops, and language interpretation and translation.
The panel needed every minute. It summoned people from a “menu” of more than 100 fairgrounds stakeholders for hearings. The meetings were more detailed, with more actual content per minute - and less political throat-clearing - than any city council meeting I’ve seen. Healthy Democracy staffers stayed out of the discussion, declining declined to answer questions from panelists about the fairgrounds (content being the exclusive province of the panelists themselves).
Broad agreement on recommendations
The panelists also wrote three reports themselves. The first, “Principles,” detailed the body’s criteria and methods. A second, “Pathways,” outlined 100-plus visions for the fairgrounds. The third and final report offered specific recommendations for land use at the fairgrounds. “Key Points of Agreement” had 90% support from panelists: maintaining agriculture at fairgrounds; a farmer’s market; keeping the fair and its ugly dogs; and operating an emergency evacuation center during earthquakes and wildfires. A fifth idea, urging greater noise mitigation, was a response to fairground neighbors’ concerns about speedway noise. The group was cool to novel ideas, from building a YMCA to returning land to the Miwok people.
The panel had struggles. Its schedule got scrambled by COVID. Four panelists dropped out; others complained that, even with 100 hours, they didn’t have enough time to ask all their questions. But panelists say the process was powerful because it’s controlled by the citizens themselves - and that they expect such panels to be used more.
Process defused conflict
Some stakeholders wanted a more detailed vision from the panel, rather than a list of recommendations. But leading Petalumans say the process has defused conflict and created a more positive atmosphere for negotiations.
The author Joe Mathews is a journalist at Zócalo Public Square and a board member of Democracy International.
Read more: 2022 Petaluma Fairgrounds Advisory Panel
Image licence: CC BY-ND 4.0