One of Cambria’s biggest mysteries keeps me wondering: Where do people get their information? Not their opinions, but facts? There is quite a bit of chatter and an occasional swell of public participation in the things that local government organizations do. Still, active community participation through “official” channels is statistically negligible.
A discussion at the Parks, Recreation, and Open Space (PROS) Commission meeting raised this question again. PROS is doing its best to move recreation projects forward and is looking for ways to get public input. The question is, how to do that effectively?
The PROS Commission faces some tough and unique challenges as it strives to meet its charter. The organization has little to no budget and authority yet keeps finding ways to move projects forward. Among the challenges, the East Fiscalini Ranch looms large. As it currently stands, the ranch segment to the east of Highway 1 has a dog park, a few picnic tables, a sizeable graded, gopher-holed open field, and a basic walking path around the perimeter. Under a covenant with San Luis Obispo County, which contributed $500,000.00 to purchasing the Fiscalini property, this section calls for developing “active recreation.” A devil’s bargain, perhaps, but a reality that needs managing.
Best Laid Plans
So, what is active recreation? A Master Plan developed in the project’s early days identified a range of possible uses, from baseball and soccer fields to golf facilities and more. For each project, a slew of regulations, studies, and permits need to be addressed. Moreso, there are environmental concerns for both the physical locations and the surrounding neighborhoods. In reality, each idea brings significant challenges and low probabilities for implementation. One hurdle to the further development of the proposed recreation area is the requirement for bathroom facilities. This condition is on the way to being met, with all the critical study, design, and approvals completed. Now, it needs to be funded and built.
The issues all add up to a nearly unsolvable condition. PROS has been struggling to either let go of or redo the original Master Plan, which doesn’t reflect the practical realities of today. Interestingly, the struggle to come to terms with today’s realities has surfaced another serious and weighty question – What are PROS’ Purpose, Mission, and Operating Principles? How can this unfunded, volunteer-staffed and led Commission effectively provide input to the CCSD Board?
Big Hearts, Small Steps
In the face of all these challenges, the good-hearted and committed members of the Commission have been pressing ahead. They have identified three simple, low-cost projects that will add incremental functionality to the park with little fiscal or environmental overhead. In simple terms, the goals are to better structure the existing paths that run around the perimeter, design and add several exercise stations adjacent to the course, and build a few additional picnic benches and trash receptacles to provide areas for people to sit and relax. Each of these projects will be examined by an Ad Hoc committee to identify the required next steps to bring them from idea to reality.
This Ad Hoc committee and the PROS Commission are looking for public input. So how does that happen? Given the low level of participation in the process, it seems new avenues of communication are needed. Go to the PROS page, find a member, and reach out with your thoughts. Attend a meeting. Submit a comment through the Board Secretary. Think about what you are for, rather than what you are against.
Change the conversation from Action/Opposition/Outrage to Input/Discussion/Refinement/Implementation.
Attendance at official public meetings is dramatically low. For example, at the PROS meeting today, November 1, 2022, there were two attendees from the public. The number of attendees over time ranges between zero and, on a great day, maybe eight attendees. Most participants seem to be “frequent flyers,” with the occasional surge of folks who log in to speak on a specific issue that they support or, more likely, oppose. The recent discussion around the leash ordinance on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve drew some passionate commentary from the public. Still, even that was limited to a tiny – one handful, perhaps, number. This pattern repeats at the Policy Committee meeting, with many of the same regulars in attendance.
The past year has been full of difficult and complicated discussions that cut straight to the core of an issue that touches every member of the community. Rate hikes upon rate increases have left many reeling, angry, and a bit fearful of what may come next. But why were so many people surprised by what happened? Why is the first reaction so often an assault on the honesty, integrity, and competence of our elected officials and the professional staff that keeps our agencies running?
Vote the bastards out! Give us all new heros! Wait a minute, those folks were our heros last time. They must have somehow gotten dumb, corrupt and greedy – no way they are honest! Really?
A quick roll call of the Directors who have served on the CCSD Board since 2012…Clift, Thompson, Sanders, Farmer, Wharton, Pierson, Rice, Robinette, Bahringer, Dean, Stiedel, Gray, Howell. All of these fellow citizens are no good SOBs? Really?
Transparency – A Shared Responsibility
Our local agencies provide very good access to information to the communities they serve. The Cambria Community Services District website is an public portal that leads to detailed current and historical data across the departments that make up the District. Navigation is fairly easy, though as with any information repositories, finding things sometimes requires careful consideration on how one forms a query.
The CCSD website offers a simple, consistent method for citizens to get information on meetings, agendas, relevant updates, and news releases. Users can opt into any or all categories offered and receive timely information delivered to their email addresses. Yet, the data shows that only a small percentage of the CCSD customer base utilizes this feature.
|Email Subscriber List||Subscribed 9/15/2022||Subscribed 11/1/2022|
|PROS Commission Agendas||290||293|
|Finance Standing Committee Agendas||304||305|
|Resources and Infrastructure Standing Committee||332||336|
|Policy Standing Committee Agendas||335||336|
|Annual Water Quality Report (CCR)||335||342|
|Affordable Housing Program||291||297|
|Fire Department News and Updates||361||366|
|Water and Wastwater News and Updates||403||407|
|Facilities and Resources News and Updates||349||353|
|Administration News and Updates||319||321|
The Waste Management rate hike caught a lot of people off guard. Even though it received all the required public hearings, it did not generate much public involvement until the reality of the actual increase became clear. Much of the awareness was driven by active community members, who banged the drum and rang the bell to alert fellow community members. The resultant outcry, and poorly executed public hearing, was an epic example of a community in action, good and bad.
The CCSD website had a section dedicated to the issue. The statistics – 254 users, 311 unique page views.
I reached out through a Public Records Request to see how many ratepayers contacted the CCSD for information and feedback before the September 15th Protest date. In addition to my request, four other document sets matched the inquiry. One emailer asked detailed questions about the issue. A second ratepayer asked for a protest form; the third was a fellow citizen who, upon request of the clerk, provided said protest form. The fourth was a string of correspondence between the trash company, the CCSD staff and GM, and the consultant who did the rate study.
I also asked the Directors individually about their contact level with the public. Two responded; the first said, “Two people, and you are one of them.” The second replied, “One came to me through my participation with another community group.” The remaining three Directors did not respond.
I highlight these data points to illustrate how few community members use the official tools available versus how many voice opinions across the spectrum of channels that make up today’s Town Square. There are influential and trusted community members who do the hard work to gather and share information. Some approach issues as a hammer in search of a nail, and others have deeply held principles that frame their positions in support of those beliefs. Then there are the “fighters” who just like to go to battle—democracy in action.
Why is so little interaction with the people and resources best suited to provide factual information? What can the CCSD do to drive more fact-based dialog?
Making an Effort
Want more heated debate? I offer the Cambria Community Healthcare District’s ballot initiative – Proposition G-22. The ballot measure is a big ask for a community tagged with significant rate increases for critical services and infrastructure. In simple terms, the CHD is asking voters to approve a tax on properties within the District’s borders to fund a replacement for the existing Ambulance and District office complex. The measure seeks to raise $8.5 million to remove the existing buildings and construct a modern facility that will meet the current and future needs of the communities served by the CHD.
The documentation provided on the CHD website is more talking points than details, leaving room for interpretations and assumptions, and unanswered specific questions. Further exchanges have continued in the online Town Square, with little movement or resolution, and everybody is a little guilty of intractability.
To the District’s credit, Board members and Staff leadership have been out at the Farmer’s Market every Friday, ready to engage in discussion. A public information forum on a recent Sunday afternoon drew a small crowd to the Joslyn Center, joined by some Zoom attendees. While not a great success, an effort was made to have a fact-based dialog. Unfortunately, the dialog part was less than positive. Though less than totally convinced, I left the meeting as a public supporter of the measure.
I have visited the existing facility twice to see the issues up close and spoke with multiple members of the Ambulance Corps. They walked me through the challenging logistics of living and working in the existing building complex. My view (and yes, my gut feeling) is that the conditions are pretty poor, the footprint does not lend itself to modernization, and the domino effect of trying to renovate will lead to significant and impractical hurdles. I am not an expert, but I trust the professionals who have put this project together. And I trust the employees who know better than most the challenges the existing facilities present.
I am reminded of a discussion with a friend about keeping an old car for a few more years versus replacing it with a new vehicle. Would the old car last for a while? Probably, but it would still be an old car that would require more and more service.
We have three capable candidates running for two seats on the CCSD Board of Directors. Use your mind and your heart. Ask questions rather than make assumptions. Review their platforms. Call them. Email them. Challenge them. Encourage them. And remember, they are our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens volunteering to take what can be a very unpleasant yet rewarding four year ride. They all deserve our best wishes.
We also have a serious decision to make on the future of our Healthcare District facilities. A decision that will have real impact on all of the community, whether wealthy, poor, or just an average citizen doing the best that can be done to live a decent life.
Think about what you are for, rather than what you are against.
And eat your vegetables.