A Tale of Three Public Meetings

You and I are the public.

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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Learning to Ride an Electric Bike

Set realistic expectations.

One way you can reduce your transportation carbon footprint is to learn to ride an electric bike safely and then to make riding it part of your normal routine.

This story began with the previous post entitled Riding an Electric Bike is Good for You and the Planet. If you read that post, you will know why I decided to test ride an electric bike and what happened when I took a demo bike home. For readers picking up the story here, it will be useful for you to know that I bought an electric bike after crashing in my driveway during the home demo week.

I have owned my electric bike for a little over two months. In the hope of persuading you to try an electric bike yourself, I am sharing my real-life experiences during that time (some good and some not). If you are already an electric bike aficionado, please share your story in the comment section below.

Our Old Bikes Get a Second Life

When we purchased our electric bikes, I asked the store owner Wally if he knew of an organization that would accept our old bikes as a donation. He suggested the Cambria Bike Kitchen in the town where we live. I had seen the Cambria Bike Kitchen building but I did not know what was meant by a bike kitchen.

Via Facebook messages, I was connected with a volunteer named Larry. I texted him to make arrangements for my spouse and me to drop off the bikes and a bike rack that does not work with our new bikes.

Larry Kotowicz and Chad Rowe with Donation Bikes at Cambria Bike Kitchen - November 2019
Cambria Bike Kitchen volunteers (left to right) Larry Kotowicz and Chad Rowe with the bikes we donated.

While we were there I asked Larry to tell me about the Cambria Bike Kitchen. It is a nonprofit organization that offers space, tools, and expertise to people who want to repair their own bikes. For a small donation, they will repair your bike for you. Donated bikes get checked out and cleaned up before they are given to kids or adults in need and sometimes bikes are sold.

The Cambria Bike Kitchen provides adult-supervised trail rides for kids of various ages and abilities. This helps kids learn biking skills while enjoying being outside in our beautiful forest.

No, It Was Not Just Like Riding a Bike

Chances are you have heard someone say or said yourself “It is just like riding a bike.” meaning it is second nature or you will easily remember how to do it.

I beg to differ with the above statement at least as it relates to me and my electric bike.

Why would I have thought that after not having ridden a bike in many years, I would hop on an electric bike and instantly be a proficient rider? Most likely it was a combination of enthusiasm and wishful thinking. In hindsight, I realize that my expectations of myself were not realistic.

Compounding the problem was that while I was away for several weeks in October my spouse adapted to electric bike riding and was soon zipping around town running errands. I wanted to be able to do that, too.

My spouse gave me a refresher on bicycle regulations and hand signals and helped me learn how to operate the controls on my electric bike. I did do some practice riding around the bank parking lot at the end of our street and on some of the flatter streets in town. But the thing is we loaded the bikes onto our kayak trailer, now equipped with a removable bike rack, drove them to a spot to practice, and then rode the bikes. This was not exactly riding in the “real world.”

Yet, I declared myself ready for a trip to Soto’s True Earth Market about ¾ of a mile from our house.

A Harrowing Ride to the Grocery Market

The ride got off to a good start. I made it down our steep driveway and street without a mishap.

My spouse had warned me that the bike lane on Main Street would end about halfway between our house and Soto’s. Once you reach that point, you encounter cars parallel parked almost continuously along the curb.

As I neared the end of the bike lane, I signaled, checked for cars, and moved left into the middle of the road. You need to be careful not to ride too close to parked cars or you could get whacked when someone who is not looking opens their car door.

I was thankful to be riding an electric bike. Using the top pedal-assist level and a high gear I was riding about 18-20 miles an hour on this section of the road that is marked with a speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

Legally you can ride a bike in the middle of the road if you are going the same speed as the cars, there is no bike lane, or the bike lane is not safe. Apparently, some of the people driving cars behind us were unaware of the California Vehicle Code or were just impatient. One car illegally tailgated us and another one conducted an illegal and unsafe pass on the left. This stretch of road is less than ½ mile long so it was not as if we were backing up traffic. Geez, people.

Soto's True Earth Market Storefront
Entrance to Soto’s True Earth Market in Cambria, CA – photo Soto’s.

We parked our bikes on the sidewalk near the entrance to Soto’s making sure that pedestrians would not be impeded. After winding a lock around the pole of a street sign and through the bike frames we removed the keys locking the wheels. My spouse grabbed the saddlebags that we used to load up with our groceries.

On the way home, we did everything in reverse.

By the time we got to our street, I was already tired because for some reason I had felt compelled to ride as fast as I could so that I would not tick off the motorists behind me. I wobbled around the corner and then rode up the street and the driveway at a virtual snail’s pace using the top pedal-assist mode and lowest gear. I made it to the top of the driveway exhausted and out of breath.

Wow, I have walked on the sidewalk and driven in a car up and down Main Street hundreds of times, but I had no idea how dangerous it is for people riding a bike until one of those people was me.

A Crisis of Confidence

I figured if we persevered, followed the law, and were polite to everyone we encountered, eventually people in the community would get used to seeing us riding around town and would be okay with it.

That was before the second crash.

This one occurred at the bottom of the street. My spouse had made the signal light but I had to stop on a very steep curve. Instead of stopping I crashed into the curb and fell off. While I was sitting there making sure all my limbs were intact two people driving down the street stopped and asked if I needed assistance. This show of caring heartened me. Fortunately, I only had a bruised ankle and some scratches. I knew it was important for me to get back on the bike and finish the trip. And I did.

Unfortunately, the second crash shattered my confidence.

A few days later, we decided to ride to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve to take a walk. Poised at the top of the driveway, I could not move. I was too afraid to ride my bike down it.

A Way Forward

Sometimes the best course of action is to suck it up and power through your fear but sometimes it is best to step back and rethink what you are doing.

The electric bikes had been my idea. They represented one part of our quest to be able to get from point A to B without burning fossil fuels. And we had laid down a significant chunk of cash to buy and equip the bikes.

I pondered what to do.

The solution became apparent but not during an “ah-ha” moment. It was more like a “duh” moment. If I am committed to getting off fossil fuels, and I am, then I need to learn to ride the electric bike. However, it is okay for me to care for myself and to learn at my own pace.

So it is back to the basics for me.

I am learning how to ride a bike again and practicing operating my electric bike on my own terms. For now, I walk my bike down the driveway and the street and then ride it to wherever we are going, which does not include the market, yet. On the way back, I ride up the street and the driveway but I give myself permission to stop and walk my bike the rest of the way if I need to (this is not easy).

Linda Poppenheimer on Rock Bench at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA - November 2019
Happily, I have achieved one goal which was to ride my bike to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and then ride back home.

How long will it take for me to become a proficient and confident electric bike rider? It could take months, a year, or even longer.

Imagine Yourself on an Electric Bike

After reading the above story, I will understand if you are thinking that I do not make a very good electric bike advocate. But I think I do and this is why.

We all need to live more lightly on Earth and for many of us, that means we need to change the way we live. Some changes are easy and others are not. The important thing is to be committed to doing both.

For me things, like composting and cutting plastic bag waste, were easy. Learning to ride an electric bike has been hard but I am doing it.

Linda Poppenheimer at Mechanics Bank ATM in Cambria, CA - November 2019
Here I am depositing a check into the ATM at the Mechanics Bank in Cambria, CA. We stopped here on the way back from a ride to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.

I imagine a world where bicyclists of all ages and abilities enjoy riding on safe bike pathways that go everywhere. In the meantime, if you are driving your car and see me pedaling along the street, thank you for sharing the road with me.

Featured Image at Top: Wooden cubes with letters rotating from saying DONT to DOIT – Photo credit iStock/Eoneren.

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