A Tale of Three Public Meetings

You and I are the public.

Yellow Invitation in Red Envelope

If you have never or rarely been to a public meeting, this post is for you.

Readers, who clicked on the link after reading the title of this post, thank you. Perhaps you are a candidate for becoming a public meeting participant who wants to learn about issues that are important to you and make your voice heard.

Do you believe that public meetings are an important part of the democratic process?

I do.

Yet, until December 13, 2018, I had not been to a public meeting hosted by the U.S. federal government. That evening I attended a public meeting put on by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) about possible offshore wind farms in the Pacific Ocean near where I live on the California Central Coast. I learned something surprising at that meeting and if you are interested you can read about it in the post entitled It is Your Community, Go to a Public Meeting.

Before that meeting, I knew conceptually that people who hold and go to public meetings influence what happens locally, regionally, statewide, nationally, and internationally. But for whatever reason, I did not directly connect that to my daily life. Nor did I think of myself as the public that public meetings are for. I know weird, right?

The thing is that if you and I do not participate in public meetings then part of the public is missing and we are passing up an opportunity to become informed and weigh in on issues that matter to us.

To give you a feel for what occurs during a public meeting, in this post, I am recounting my experience at three very different environmentally-related public meetings that took place during the last five months.

Water District Meeting

We live in a small town with its own water district meaning that we are responsible for our water supply, distribution, and wastewater treatment. The Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) oversees more than our water but for this post, we will stick with water.

During the last drought, our town came dangerously close to running out of water. In 2014, the CCSD board of directors declared a stage 3 (highest level) water emergency, imposed severe water use restrictions, and authorized building an emergency water supply (EWS) project to treat brackish water and inject it into our aquifer.

The EWS is an expensive poorly thought out project that has saddled the community with a huge amount of debt and cannot be operated for a variety of reasons that we will not go into here.

When it was time to elect new directors in 2018, my spouse and I read up on the candidates, talked with some of them in person, and attended a forum mediated by the League of Women Voters.

The need for a reliable water supply has not gone away so the current CCSD board of directors and the townspeople are trying to figure out a way to move forward.

Cambria Community Services District Town Hall Meeting Attendees - September 7, 2019
Cambria Community Services District town hall meeting attendees watch a presentation at the veteran’s hall in Cambria, CA on September 7, 2019.

Last fall the public had an opportunity to attend a CCSD board/town hall meeting at which the CCSD staff provided an overview of how the town’s water and wastewater systems work and gave an update on the EWS project (now dubbed SWS for sustainable water supply).

I had not been to a CCSD board meeting before but I wanted to learn about what is going on with our water supply so I asked my spouse to go with me to the meeting. On Saturday, September 7, 2019, we walked to the veteran’s hall from our house and joined a sparse crowd of people. The CCSD staff gave a well prepared and informative presentation.

On the way home from the meeting, I pondered why I have not been attending these meetings. Was I just taking it for granted that clean safe drinking water would come out of my kitchen faucet whenever I turned it on no matter what happened? Was I apathetic because I do not think my opinion matters? Was I thinking that solving the water situation in our town is not my problem? Perhaps it was all of the above.

It does not matter why I had not participated before that day. All that counts is that I want to be involved, now. Writing this post reminded me to submit my request form so I can begin receiving meeting notices and agendas via email.

City Council Meeting

Our home is located in an unincorporated part of San Luis Obispo County, CA of which San Luis Obispo is the largest city (population around 47,000).

In 2018, the City of San Luis Obispo announced its intention to become carbon neutral by 2035. I do not live in the City so why should I care? Well, for starters, the environment does not recognize any kind of borders and the City often sets the example for the County.

During 2019, the City of San Luis Obispo worked on updating their climate action plan to incorporate the 2035 goal. Prior to attending the first public workshop in May, I wrote a post entitled The City of SLO Wants Your Climate Action Plan Ideas on behalf of the SLO Climate Coalition.

Several months later, on December 3, 2019, I attended my first San Luis Obispo City Council meeting.

That night the City hosted a workshop before the meeting for people to learn about the City’s climate action plan and to share their own ideas.

I was pleased to have an opportunity to meet the transit manager so I could talk with him about the need for more buses coming into the City because people like me who drive a car into the City for work, play, or to attend public meetings contribute to its greenhouse gas emissions. Talking with the natural resources manager I learned about a proposed demonstration project that involves compost and sequestering carbon in the City’s open green spaces.

After the workshop, my spouse and I grabbed dinner at a local Thai restaurant and then walked back to City Hall for the City Council meeting.

League of Women Voters at San Luis Obispo City Council Meeting - December 3, 2019
League of Women Voters volunteers at San Luis Obispo, CA City Hall on December 3, 2019.

We were greeted by three women from the League of Women Voters. (I think I later heard Mayor Heidi Harmon refer to them as democracy concierges.) I asked them about the protocol for the meeting. They gave me the run down and one of the women handed me a brochure about civil discourse.

The main part of the meeting was devoted to what was called a study session about the climate action plan. During the presentation given by the sustainability office, the city council members asked questions and provided comments. Then members of the public who had filled out speaker slips had an opportunity to stand at a podium and speak for three minutes.

It was an informative and even fun evening. Maybe next I will try a San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors Meeting.

Non Profit Meeting

On a cold winter evening in January 2019, my spouse and I attended a presentation about Monterey pine trees put on by the Cambria Forest Committee. It was there that I encountered a rack of tubes holding tiny Monterey pine seedlings and found myself volunteering to grow a rack of seedlings myself.

I do not remember how I came to attend a Cambria Forest Committee board of directors meeting for the first time, but I do remember being warmly welcomed. Over the past year, I have attended several meetings and learned a lot about our Monterey pine forest and the challenges of coordinating conservation efforts in a forest with many different landowners both public and private.

My own contribution to the Committee’s conservation mission involved planting 20 Monterey pine seedlings in my own yard and nurturing a rack of 98 seedlings I grew from seeds that will be planted on California State Park property by the time this post is published.

A few weeks ago, my spouse and I bundled up and walked down to the Mechanics Bank community room to attend the January 8, 2020, Cambria Forest Committee meeting. I had seen on the agenda that there was going to be a report from the county’s Fire Safe Focus Group and I was interested to hear what they had to say.

Cambria Forest Committee Meeting Attendees - January 8, 2020
Cambria Forest Committee meeting attendees gathered at the Mechanics Bank community room in Cambria, CA on January 8, 2020.

When you live a forest, fire is a concern but it can’t be the only concern. Healthy forests are essential ecosystems and a healthy forest can reduce fire risk. There must be a balance between conversation and fire prevention.

At the meeting, there could have been an unpleasant confrontational discussion between people concerned about conservation and people concerned about fire safety, but it turned out to be a lively and productive dialogue (at least that is how it seemed to me).

Again, I learned a lot by attending a public meeting and I was introduced to another group in my community doing important work.

Now it is Your Turn

After reading this post, I hope you will consider attending a public meeting about a topic or issue that is important to you and your family. It is okay if you just want to listen, watch, and learn. However, if you also want to voice your opinion then speaking during the public comment period is one way to make your voice heard.

Remember public meetings are for you and me.

Featured Image at Top

A yellow piece of paper that says “You’re Invited” sticks out of a red envelope – photo credit iStock/ogichobanov.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

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