With dozens of special districts, boards and committees stretching from Pacifica to Pescadero, there’s no shortage of ways to get involved in local government. But the same handful of people tend to show up to meetings to advocate for or against the issues of the day. The biggest decisions are sometimes made in the smallest rooms with the same familiar faces.
The pandemic changed that, somewhat. Now that meetings are held online, more people can attend, and that has made a difference. Absent the barriers of commuting to a central location, often accompanied by taking time off from child care or work, more locals have been encouraged to show up and speak up. Both literally and figuratively, the walls around local democracy were taken down.
Of course, virtual meetings also shut out some potential attendees. Not everyone has internet access or the technological literacy to participate.
Most people don’t attend public meetings, and that’s not because they don’t have the time or technology. Coastsiders are passionate. Their failure to attend is not because they don’t care about the agenda or showing up for their community. There are other barriers at play.
They are physical, linguistic, social and cultural. Participating in public debate and democracy just isn’t part of many people’s day-to-day schedule. In addition, the traditional notice and outreach methods, like posting a public notice in a newspaper, might not be reaching them. The decorum inherent in the Brown Act can make meetings feel formal and cold and can affect the way citizens are able to make their voices heard. It can also make people feel unwelcome, particularly if accommodations like translation services aren’t offered proactively. The best way to change that is through education.
To get beyond the same voices making the same decisions around the same tables, creative solutions are in order. We like La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District Board Member Monica Resendiz’s idea to provide education about public meetings and how to attend them at the start of each school year. Decisions made in school board meetings are among the most long-lasting when it comes to shaping the future of the Coastside community, and they’re a good place to start when it comes to educating the public.
But why stop there? Every board should host a yearly introductory meeting to introduce the people around the table, their board’s scope and purpose, and make sure anyone who is interested in attending has the tools they need to be part of the conversation.
The pandemic helped cast the net of public participation wider than before. Let’s use this momentum to invite even more people into the process.
— Sarah Wright