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2009 Grant Projects

In 2009, the Davenport Institute awarded a number of grants to cities, counties, special districts and non-profit organizations seeking to expand civic engagement in their communities. Over $50,000 total grant money was given to projects ranging from city budgets to government structuring to youth programs. Here are their projects:

    1. California Common Cause — San Diego City Charter Review

Program: California Common Cause is a statewide grassroots organization with over 80,000 members. In 2009, they joined with community members in the City of San Diego to promote civic engagement over an important question regarding the form of government in the City of San Diego. As Board Member Ric Bainter explained in the grant application, "In 2004, the voters of San Diego approved a change to their city charter to move from a council-manager form of city government to a mayor-council (strong mayor) form. The ballot initiative that created this change in government also required the voters of San Diego to review their decision after five years. That five year period will expire at the end of 2010."

Such a fundamental question of government organization clearly meets the level of significance and timelessness requiring public engagement. Yet, as Bainter recognizes, "the issue of the form of city government is not one that typically draws the interest or excitement of the press or the public. Without a proactive and sustained effort by civil society, the public will only be informed (or misinformed) through the political advertisements of advocates on opposing sides of the ballot issue."

California Common Cause produces such an effort through such elements as educating the public through a diverse group of national and local experts, developing informational materials, engaging the media and organizing and facilitating deliberative public discussions. They hope to encourage an informed public to actively participate in helping the City make an informed decision.

    1. City of San Pablo — San Pablo Avenue Specific Plan

Project Description: San Pablo Avenue is the major arterial street within the City and connects San Pablo with the city of Pinole and Richmond to the North and the City of El Cerrito to the South.  Properties along this corridor are underutilized and in a state of decline and require urgent attention.  The Metropolitan Transit Commission  (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), in conjunction with two other regional partners, AC Transit and WCCTAC recognized this fact by designating this corridor a Priority Development Area (PDA) as part of the FOCUS initiative. 

The Davenport Institute grant supported the City in its efforts to develop a Specific Plan for this corridor. To encourage public participation and to solicit public input for the General Plan update, the City organized a Free Community Barbeque/Workshop at a local park. The event was very well attended with over 100 community members, elected officials, and staff members present. The City's Recreation Division provided childcare to allow parents an opportunity to be fully engaged in the discussions. Furthermore, the City also offered translation services which were provided by a professional translator.

The workshop manifested itself as a community celebration, where issues were discussed in small lively round table discussions over a casual barbeque at the park. The results of the small group discussions were then reported by community members to the group as a whole. The venue provided a forum that was inviting, and festive, while also being productive. The information gathered from the community influenced the development of a Preferred Plan for San Pablo's General Plan.

To encourage public participation, a bilingual postcard was mailed to all households and businesses in the City. Additionally, staff also attended various PTA meetings making bilingual announcements of the event, and flyers were distributed to all the schools within the City. Notifications were sent to various non-profit organizations and distributed at City sponsored events.

The resulting element was incorporated into the General Plan, which was passed by Council in April, 2011.

    1. City of Villa Park — City Park Development

Program: The City of Villa Park is a small city in Orange County that currently has no park acreage, but is exploring the possibility of purchasing land to develop a park using park bond grant funds from the state. In 2002 the city established the non-profit Villa Park Community Services Foundation which often works closely with the city to provide activities, but is funded through private donations. Both the city and the Foundation are committed to seeking public engagement as they explore the possibility of developing a park in the city.

For City Staff and members of the Community Services Foundation, this is an opportunity for more than just public information and approval. They want to know how interested residents are in park development, where residents think a park should be located, what features would be important in the park and whether community members are willing to fund ongoing maintenance and operations through the Community Services Foundation.

As City Manager Lori Sassoon explains in the grant application, "This project would let us use new ways to engage those residents that would otherwise not have their opinions and ideas incorporated into this process. The result of this input would then guide the next steps of the City and Foundation. If the community is not supportive of the park concept, it will not be pursued. If the community desires a park and is willing to fund ongoing maintenance through the Foundation, the process will move forward." Grant funds will be used to provide public information and to host small-group discussions to promote legitimate civic engagement on this issue.

    1. City of Walnut Creek — Participatory Budgeting

Community Conversations on Balancing for the Future

Program: Like most cities in California, the City of Walnut Creek has been hard hit by the recession and the state budget crisis. As it faces deepening budget concerns, the city is turning to its residents for help. In the grant application Community Relations Manager Gayle Vassar explains, "Done correctly, a budget tells the story of what its community values. Understanding these values and priorities and involving the community to help make difficult decisions about the types and levels of services the City will provide in the next few years is the Council's highest priority."

To this end, the city is beginning a two-step Community Conversation on Balancing for the Future. The first step, Vassar explains, is to present the public with big picture goals and get community input about what achieving these goals might look like. The second step is to ask the community "to weigh in on whether some of the goals and subgoals are more important at this time than other." This information will be used to allocate budget funds.

The City of Walnut Creek recognizes that legitimate engagement is not simply presenting community members with alternatives. Rather it "requires a commitment and belief that one group does not have all the answers and cannot provide all the services. A willingness to be a real partner by sharing power and responsibility is key in making a community a desirable place to live and work" (from the grant application).

    1. Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District — Water Resource Use

Project Site and Final Report

Project: The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District provides water to customers in Humboldt Bay area through two separate water systems: an industrial water system and a domestic water system. Over the past few years, the district has faced a loss of customer base on the industrial side which in turn increases costs to municipal customers and end users. In addition, the district is aware of "potential challenges to water rights which are held for the long-term benefit of our community" (from the grant application).

To address these issues the district is implementing a civic engagement process designed to 1) educate the public about the issues facing the water district, 2) seek input from the public regarding what is important to the community, 3) facilitate resident participation in developing and evaluating options to 4) provide formal recommendations to the Water District's Board of directors.

General Manager Carol Rische explains that the goal of the process includes "actively involving people from diverse political, economic, and social positions and perspectives in meaningful, effective ways with elected officials and/or government staff in understanding and defining issues; developing, evaluating and recommending solutions." For the Water District, this means developing an advisory committee to provide a citizen link to officials, providing facts to residents so that they can make informed decisions and identifying and including diverse individuals and community groups in the engagement process.

    1. Redwood City — Climate Protection Dialogues

City's Climate Action Website

Project: The Redwood City Climate Action Plan proposes to reduce carbon emission levels in the city by 15% by 2020. What began as an initiative by a 12-member citizen Climate Advisory Team is now being reviewed by the larger community through facilitated climate dialogues. Deputy City Manager Magda Gonzalez noted in the grant application that "Reaching the reduction target outlined in the Plan will require the engagement and active participation on the part of our community." She goes on to explain that residents will discuss the plan in small groups and consider what the community can commit to in reaching the goals.

"A culminating World Café will bring participants from each of the climate dialogues together with organizations working on climate protection. The Café will extend the conversation, connecting the wealth of perspectives heard during the dialogues. It will also be an opportunity for community members to come together with organizations and community groups to identify resources and commit to taking action to implement the Climate Action Plan," explains Gonzalez.

The city recognizes that civic engagement requires community members, staff and policy makers to work as partners in addressing community needs. As the grant application affirms, "An effective process of civic engagement builds trust, generates creative new ideas and provides community members with the knowledge, opportunity and agency to create positive changes in their community."

    1. Sonoma County — Participatory Budgeting

Project: Sonoma County faced budget challenges even before the recession, including health care costs, changes in population demographics, need for improved facilities and infrastructure. Exacerbating these challenges, was a lack of civic engagement. Public Information Officer James Toomey noted that "the majority of the county's population is largely unaware of the county's myriad functions, and the value of the programs and services the county either offers or is mandated to perform." The County knew that it needed to address this problem in order to develop creative solutions to other issues.

In 2006 and 2007 the county developed a Strategic Plan that included a specific goal to increase engagement efforts. In the county's grant application Toomey explains, "The county seeks to be a convener of discussion around key issues through early, targeted outreach and engagement efforts. Our proposed Community Engagement Plan seeks to greatly increase our efforts to engage in both one way (education) and two way (engagement) communications opportunities)." They hope to involve citizens in developing informed, effective solutions to budget issues.

Toomey credits his experience at a Davenport Institute training session with helping to refocus the county's idea of civic engagement. He says the model presented at the training "immediately ‘rang true' with me. I believe in the notion of bringing relevant parties from all across the community together EARLY and without preconceived notions of the outcome. I believe that solutions can result from such engagement, even solutions that had not been previously contemplated."

    1. Sutter County — Youth Programs to Reduce Gang Involvement

Program: Sutter County is a rural, agriculture diverse community. With perennial high unemployment rates and an ethnically diverse community, the county is experiencing increasing gang violence, especially among local Latino youth. The county seeks to be proactive in this issue, and as Joan Hoss, Director of Human Services for the county noted in the grant application, "while local service professionals are keenly interested in youth development, and in assisting local Latino youth who are at risk of gang involvement, we will not be successful in addressing the systemic problems without the assistance and guidance of local residents who are dealing with these issues within their own families and communities. We need them to tell us what they think will work and how to be most helpful."

For this reason, the county seeks to work with a specialist in educational leadership and policy studies/youth advocacy and delinquency research from CSU Sacramento, Francisco Reveles, Ed.D, to "engage the local Latino community in a series of community forums in which we would be soliciting community input regarding specific activities and approaches community members feel would reduce involvement of local youth in gangs." The county will provide Spanish speaking staff to help conduct bilingual meetings.

The county has a history of seeking input from community members on significant issues. Staff members recognize that they do not have all the answers and are enthusiastic about hearing suggestions from those who may have new ideas.