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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Civil Rights and the Climate Crisis

All of our fates are intertwined.

If he were alive today, I can imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declaring that everyone deserves a habitable planet to live on and demanding action, now.

It was with trepidation that I approached writing a post that would be published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Dr. King was an amazing human being. What could I write about that would be appropriate? There was no way I was going to write a post entitled 10 Ways to Green Your MLK Day Celebration or to put an environmental spin on Dr. King’s life.

So, I did what I often do when I do not know what I am writing about and conducted some research. I refreshed myself on Dr. King’s history, read several articles, and reread his “I Have a Dream…” speech that he delivered to a crowd of 250,000 people surrounding the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963.

The excerpt below is from that speech.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy…Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

Dr. King embodied justice and a sense of urgency. Of course, I cannot say for certain but it seems to me that he believed all people are connected. I do, too.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Portrait - 1964

I decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today by sharing my belief that we are all connected and why this is important. Perhaps you believe this, too, or will at least be willing to give it some thought.

Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. This is his portrait taken by an unknown photographer. Click here for the Wikipedia image page.

We are All Connected

Now, at the beginning of 2020, you and I plus billions of other people and non-human beings are living on Earth an amazing and ailing sphere spinning in the middle of nowhere. This is our home, our only home. There is no planet B.

The climate crisis crosses every boundary—real or imagined. We are all connected. Our fates are intertwined.

Therefore, we need to drop everything we are doing and focus on climate solutions, right? I hope you are shaking your head and thinking “I completely disagree with that statement.” because I do, too.

It is ridiculous (in my view) to think we can solve the climate crisis first and then worry about addressing other crises such as racism, discrimination, homelessness, hunger, and income inequality. Only a society of people who respect, value, and care for each other will be able to accomplish what we need to do. Hate, anger, and fear will not get the job done.

We need to transform our society. Social healing and ecological healing are the same work. One cannot succeed without the other.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fortunately, many, if not most, of the people leading the climate movement get it or at least they are starting to get it. Environmentalists are acknowledging that they need to meet people where they are, to listen to their ideas and concerns, and to support what other people feel is important, too. The smart organizations are asking themselves, “Who are we missing?” and are trying to find out.

After thinking about it for a couple of years, this past year I finally took action to expand my own horizons beyond environmental issues by doing things that I would not normally do.

This included activities like participating in the Women’s March to seek out and talk with people from organizations that have other concerns than the environment.

It involved doing things like standing up for the human rights of immigrants at a Lights for Liberty Rally and then contacting my elected officials to ask them what they are doing about the inhumane treatment of people at U.S. immigration detention centers.

Sometimes it meant going way outside of my comfort zone. For instance, I attended a workshop hosted by R.A.C.E. Matters SLO County where I was asked to confront my own white privilege and consider how I could use it to help build a more just and equitable community.

Are you interested in broadening your own horizons? If you are, where do you start? It does not matter just start. Surely there are issues or causes that interest you. Find something to do (no matter how small) and then do it.

What Can You Do Today?

For practice how about doing something today? Below are five of many possible ways to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the day we celebrate his birthday in the United States.

  • Read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream…” speech.
  • At dinner tonight, talk with whoever is sharing your meal about racism. If you are dining alone, then call someone this evening.
  • Watch the film 13th by director Ava DuVernay, 2016 (it’s available on Netflix).
  • Read the article The history white people need to learn by Mary-Alice Daniel, Salon, 02/07/14.
  • Today, sign up to participate in a meeting, event, or workshop about racism.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe the unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Circle of hands resting on top of the sand – photo credit iStock/kycstudio.

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