When I was appointed to the Community Advisory Board in Santa Rosa three years ago, I walked my neighborhood to introduce myself and my new role as a liaison. I represented the area of Santa Rosa that was south of Highway 12, a significant portion of the city that was, generally, less affluent and less connected to the decisions being made at City Hall.
Nobody knew what CAB was, and very few had ever had a conversation with anyone in city government — even someone in a volunteer position like the CAB. But what they did know was that they were frustrated to see their roads and infrastructure in disrepair, particularly while seeing other parts of the city being habitually repaved. Over and over, I was asked why certain segments of our city were regularly upgraded while others were ignored.
There is a policy answer, of course. City staff utilize a pavement condition index that often prioritizes the repavement of roads over the reconstruction of those that have already deteriorated past a certain level. Simply put, it’s 21.5 times cheaper to maintain than rebuild — a significant number when you consider the $11.5 million in deferred maintenance to our city’s roadways annually.
For staff, it’s their job to be as efficient as possible when spending the public’s money. But it sure didn’t feel equitable to those in my district.
One thing became painfully obvious. Even if there was a valid explanation for what these residents were feeling, many were too detached from the process to trust the decisions being made by local government. When pressed for input, many shared the sentiment that, even if they could get to City Hall on a Tuesday afternoon, it would be a waste of their time because no one was listening anyway.
Public policy should never be developed in a vacuum, and the implementation of those policies and programs should not be ideologically rigid. The Community Advisory Board agreed that we needed to do a better job as a city of creating a communitywide dialogue, and we established a subcommittee charged with creating additional opportunities for civic engagement.
Subsequent events have continued to move the city in this direction. Hiring a community engagement director has begun a much-needed cultural shift, but it’s going to take time and commitment to rebuild the trust of our neighborhoods. They need to feel like their participation isn’t a waste of time.
In 2014, the Community Advisory Board began crafting a proposal to advance participatory budgeting in Santa Rosa. Under this program, the City Council would allocate a small portion of money toward community-driven projects. Similar programs have allowed other cities to organize to create after-school sports programs, neighborhood art projects, youth academies and complete road repairs. The proposals go on a ballot, and the public gets to vote on how to allocate the funds — community-driven projects, with the city acting as a funder and facilitator.
In January, CAB launched a new outreach program and held five meetings across the city. Our goal was simple: ask the public what it wanted to see from capital improvement funds and hear input on the participatory budgeting concept. Responses from all five meetings were overwhelmingly positive, and the City Council is set to review our report on Tuesday.
California has a rich and oftentimes puzzling relationship with direct democracy. But we’ve shown that, given the opportunity, our community delivers on the issues that matter most.
We need to continue this conversation and ensure that the city makes space for all members of our community to participate and have their voices heard.
Chris Rogers is chairman of the capital improvement subcommittee for the Community Advisory Board. He’s also a member of the Roseland Area Advisory Committee. He lives in Santa Rosa.