Eight Chapters, Thousands of Members, One Voice

Inclusive Decision Making

A vibrant and engaged community is more likely to be safer, healthier, resilient, more economically sustainable and economically robust. Civic input has a profound impact on the policies that drive the decision making process in all neighborhoods and communities in California.

Civic input is highly valued by elected officials, in part, because the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 codified the process for public participation in terms of regulatory rule making. This means elected officials are required to solicit public input. But that is not the full story of why elected officials seek civic input and appreciate high levels of public participation.

MLK Park OaklandThe key reason decision makers love for residents to be engaged at the very beginning and through every step of the decision making process is that it provides ownership to the community. MLK Park in Oakland is a great example of this notion. The soccer/football fields are 3 years old and are still in pristine condition. Since the community designed it, they take care of it.

The current model in many communities throughout California relies on a ‘traditional’ set of tools to engage residents, among these more traditional tools, public surveys, visioning workshops, town hall meetings and public hearings are most frequently used. In theory, these numerous tools all sound like fine engagement strategies, but anyone who has sat through one of these traditional meetings knows…well…that they are not always fun. Moreover, they are often scheduled inconveniently, making it difficult for the community members to show up. Hence, this model of public participation processes can be exceptionally disengaging, even for those who care deeply about the issues involved.

Cities throughout California have identified this problem and begun to move to a more digital form of engaging readily available, they are often challenging to locate and understand. More usable interfaces are needed, as well as broader web-based on the record communication between governments and citizens. Simply put, the power of networks and the web have not reached their full potential, yet. social media icon images

The time has come to transition from yet to now. In doing so, the public participation processes ought to be reformed to accommodate more extensive and effective participation pertaining to all community stakeholders. Making the engagement process fun and more effective through the use of creative civic engagement tools is the next watershed breakthrough in community decision-making.

By introducing more public participation opportunities, decision makers and organizations alike can offer communities the opportunity to find the most appropriate method of involvement and participation for each individual stakeholder. This can be done by using innovative visual-art techniques, social-networking, smartphone apps, computer simulation games, exhibits, music, performances, festivals and community gatherings to engage residents and spur them to share their thoughts on civic issues.

Creating simple, engaging, and easily available updates fosters a greater possibility and likelihood of ongoing participation. This is extremely important when implementing statewide policies, such as SB 375 the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008.  As the implementation of state policy rolls out, tools such as ISEEED’s Streetwize platform presents a significant opportunity to digitally engage residents, especially youth!


Streetwize, as well as a myriad of other software programs, such as Community PlanItNeighborhland, and Texizen, offer residents the ability to connect to their local governments. An added benefit of utilizing digital tools, such as these or others, is that they ought to allow residents and decision makers the ability to benchmark building and neighborhood performance data. This fosters an implementation process that ensures outcome-based approaches

While the digitizing of civic engagement creates opportunities for expanded public participation in the decision-making process, this does not mean that a complete tradeoff ought to be made. Yes, communities should carefully examine what technological tools are available to spur civic engagement. Notwithstanding, they should also continue in-person meetings for those residents who prefer talking in person. The prime goal ought to be to increase stakeholder participation, not trade one input segment of our communities for another.

Fulfilling California’s Responsibility to Provide Clean Water

Photo Credit: Kings County Official Website (http://www.countyofkings.com/)

By Kacey Bills, MPP 2014

When I was a child growing up in Fresno, California, beach weekends were common over the blistering summer. My family always headed to the Central Coast on I-5, making a halfway pit stop in Kettleman City to get chocolate milkshakes. My anticipation for the sugary treat would be at its peak as we drove past the Waste Management and California Aqueduct signs along the highway. The proximity of a waste landfill and a major water source was peculiar to me. That mental image coupled with the lack of visible housing from the freeway made Kettleman City seem like one giant truck stop.

I recently read an article by the California Report describing the concern of Kettleman City residents over the expansion of the Chemical Waste Inc. Hazardous Waste Landfill.[1] When I learned of the controversy over the private company offering to pay Kettleman City’s $500,000 water debt pending the project’s approval, my childhood curiosity about the small town was transformed into an adult fascination.

Kettleman City is representative of many small farming communities in the Central Valley, with the population being predominately Latino, low-income, and with English as a second language. Water supplies in these communities have been proven to contain unsafe levels of chemicals, such as arsenic and nitrogen.[2] With many of the residents of these communities living below the poverty line, tax revenue to provide the necessary infrastructure for clean water is limited. Kettleman City has been attempting to provide safe water for decades, and has accumulated over $500,000 in debt in the process. People in these communities spend a disproportionate amount of their income on water and sanitation (20% compared to the national average of 0.5%).[3] Governor Brown has attempted to deal with this issue by signing AB 685, “The Human Right to Water Bill,” which specifies that all people are entitled to clean, safe, and affordable water.

That bill clearly establishes the state government’s responsibility to provide clean water, and yet Kettleman City officials must choose between the lesser of two evils: Either agree to the landfill expansion and afford clean water from the California Aqueduct, which flows within 3 miles of the town, or oppose it and attempt to get state grant funding. With clean water established as a basic human right, it seems exploitative for water to also be used to extort the support of townspeople for a project that they might oppose.

“The Human Right to Water” Bill is considered in the 2014 California Water Action Plan, one of the targets of which is to “provide safe water for all communities.” The state hopes to achieve more equitable access by encouraging collaboration across agencies and local governments.[4] The legislature is relied upon to allocate funds for communities in need. It is likely a standard grant process will be used to determine where the funds will go. Grant writing requires the hiring of technical experts, which is unaffordable to many disadvantaged communities. Furthermore, processes may take years to be implemented, and even longer to become an effective force for change in ensuring clean water systems.

Access to clean safe water in California is not equitable.[5] In 2010, the UN released a special report on California’s inability to provide safe drinking water to its residents. It stated that over 250,000 California residents do not have access to safe drinking water and must purchase bottled water.[6] With the mean income in these communities only $14,000 a year, water is a major expense. A 2011 study by UC Berkeley found smaller water systems in California have higher percentages of Latinos and renters receiving drinking water with high nitrate levels. Data proves what is easily observed on a drive through the Central Valley. The people who work to feed the world are at risk of being contaminated by the resource that gives them a livelihood: water.

Investigations by the California Department of Public Health and Environmental Protection Agency have shown no conclusive evidence to suggest Chemical Waste Inc. has contaminated the water supply in Kettleman City.[7] Conclusive evidence would require identification of the toxic substance in the environment, as well as proof of the pathway to an individual’s body. It’s common for scientific studies on contaminants to never lead to conclusive evidence. The company may never be proven responsible for the high levels of toxic exposure in Kettleman City, but it doesn’t mean that a community should negotiate a contract over a basic human right.

Kettleman City is already exposed to a wide range of toxic chemicals. The town should be spared the expansion of one of the largest hazardous waste landfills in the country and have its water debt paid off through state water funds The residents should have affordable access to the clean water from the California Aqueduct that flows directly past them. A responsible government should not force citizens to over-pay for a resource it designates a basic human right.

[1] Plevin, R. (2014, February 3). Kettleman City Weighs Toxic Dump Expansion Against Funding for Clean Water. The California report. Retrieved February 8, 2014, from http://www.californiareport.org/archive/R201402030850/b
[2] California Water Boards. (2013, January). Communities that Rely on a Contaminated Groundwater Source for Drinking Water. Retrieved from http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/gama/ab2222/docs/ab2222.pdf
[3] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque. (2011, August) Retrieved From http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/18session/A-HRC-18-33-Add4_en.pdf
[4] California Natural Resources Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Food & Agriculture. (2014, January). California Water Action Plan. Retrieved fromhttp://resources.ca.gov/california_water_action_plan/docs/Final_California_Water_Action_Plan.pdf
[5] Balazs, C., Morello-Frosch, R., Hubbard, A., & Ray, I. (2011). Social Disparities In Nitrate-Contaminated Drinking Water In California’s San Joaquin Valley. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(9), 1272-1278.
[6] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque. (2011, August) Retrieved From http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/18session/A-HRC-18-33-Add4_en.pdf
[7]California Environmental Protection Agency and California Department of Public Health. (2010, December). Investigations of Birth Defects and Community Exposures in Kettleman City, CA. Retrieved fromhttp://www.calepa.ca.gov/EnvJustice/Documents/2010/KCDocs/ReportFinal/FinalReport.pdf
reprinted with permission of The Policy Forum at Mills College.

sir francis bacon

Sir Francis Bacon on Pushing That Boulder Uphill

sir francis baconPaul Wermer of USGBC California Research reaches way back as he emerges from sustainable materials meetings: “In 1620 Sir Francis Bacon clearly identified the problem we are still struggling with today in the realm of advocacy and policy: The human understanding resembles not a dry light, but admits a tincture of the will and passions, which generate their own system accordingly; for man always believes more readily that which he prefers. He, therefore, rejects difficulties for want of patience in investigation; sobriety, because it limits his hope; the depths of nature, from superstition; the light of experiment, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should appear to be occupied with common and varying objects; paradoxes, from a fear of the opinion of the vulgar; in short, his feelings imbue and corrupt his understanding in innumerable and sometimes imperceptible ways.” Bacon, Novum Organum From http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1432