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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It is Your Community, Go to a Public Meeting

If not you, who?

Public meetings are for the public that means you and me. At a public meeting, you can learn about issues that matter to you and voice your opinion.

When you read the words “public meeting” in the title of this post, what was your first reaction? Was it something along the lines of “After attending meetings all day at work, the last thing I want to do on my own time is to attend another meeting?” Maybe you thought, “I do not have time to go to a public meeting because I need to get dinner on the table.” or “I need to help my kids with their homework.” or “I need to finish a project for my boss.”

Maybe you worried about finding a babysitter or a way to get to the meeting, work or school scheduling conflicts, feeling uncomfortable speaking in public, or you just hate meetings.

These are all valid reasons for not attending public meetings. However, chances are there will be a meeting sometime, somewhere, about a topic that matters to you that can go to, if you chose to.

I posit that the hardest barrier to overcome might be apathy; the belief that someone else will do it or that your voice does not matter. You will never know unless you show up. You do not need to commit to attending every water district board, county supervisor, or planning commission meeting for the whole year, just make a commitment to yourself to attend one meeting.

Your experience at the public meeting you choose to attend may surprise you, in a good way.

To illustrate the above point, in this post I will describe my encounter with the U.S. federal government at a public meeting about potential wind farms off the California Central Coast where I live.

California Offshore Wind Planning Informational Forum

When I saw a public meeting notice in the San Luis Obispo Tribune that there would be a forum about offshore wind farms on December 13, 2018, I was eager to attend because I have a strong interest in renewable energy, especially wind and solar. This would be my first federal government public meeting. My spouse agreed to go with me.

Entrance to Monday Club Building in San Luis Obispo, CA
Entrance to the historic Monday Club in San Luis Obispo, CA. Click the photo to visit the Monday Club website.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was hosting the meeting at the historic Monday Club building in San Luis Obispo, CA. The BOEM is the division of the U.S. Department of the Interior that is responsible for overseeing offshore energy development including oil, gas, and wind and doing it in an environmentally and economically responsible way.

At the time of the meeting, Ryan Zinke was the Secretary of the Interior (he would resign just days later) and his mission seemed to be destroying public lands, waters, and the oceans for the benefit of the fossil fuel and mining industries. I wondered what possible good the BOEM could be up to with a boss like Zinke.

Information Stations

We arrived at the Monday Club and joined a slow-moving line of people filing into the building.

I noticed a woman wearing a name badge standing on the lawn greeting people in line. When we reached her, I asked her if she was with the BOEM. She answered affirmatively but seemed a little wary as if she was expecting me to say something anti-BOEM. I told her I support offshore wind energy and that I was happy to meet a woman scientist. She smiled and said, “You will meet more women scientists inside” (we did).

Once we made it through the double doors, I realized why the line was so slow. Each person was required to sign a meeting register in the vestibule before entering the main meeting room.

It was loud and hot inside. On the left, a large projection screen was hanging down with a small number of chairs set up in rows in front of it. To the right, people standing behind folding tables were talking with members of the public while gesturing at display boards and maps and handing out printed materials.

BOEM Wind Forum Public Meeting Hand Outs

After receiving of a map of the information stations at the welcome table, we talked with a woman about the BOEM leasing process and picked up a copy of A Citizen’s Guide to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Renewable Energy Authorization Process.

Next, we discussed BOEM environmental studies with another woman and received a list of BOEM studies related to offshore wind farms.

There was a pause in the action when the woman we met outside came inside and introduced herself as Jean Thurston. She gave us a 15-minute slide presentation explaining that if approved, wind turbines would not appear off our coastline for eight or nine years.

BOEM Offshore Renewable Energy Leasing Process Slide
Slide from BOEM presentation showing that we are at the beginning of the process.

Jean pointed out the room next door that was set up for people to make public comments online or on paper. She reinforced that this meeting was to inform the public and gather public input.

After the presentation, we decided to go outside to cool off.

We Meet a Reporter

Outside the cold air felt wonderful. We spotted a young woman and said hello. She said her name was Kaytlyn Leslie and that she was a reporter for the SLO Tribune. I asked her if she had written the article I had seen in the paper. She acknowledged that she had and I thanked her.

Kaytlyn asked us if we would like to be interviewed. Without thinking about how shy and introverted I am, I immediately grabbed the opportunity and said yes. She asked us some questions and recorded our answers on her smartphone.

You cannot imagine my amazement when two days later I spotted a piece in the Tribune by Kaytlyn in which she had quoted me. I had previously submitted two letters to the editor on the topic; neither was printed, so I felt somehow redeemed.

Back at the Meeting

Cooled off we went back inside and listened to an animated man from the Department of Defense talk about Navy weapons testing as he showed us a map of the wind farm areas.

The California Energy Commission representative seemed more interested in chatting with his colleague than us so we checked out the Data Basin program at the next table. This is a tool for citizen scientists and other interested parties to map things like fishing areas or migratory bird paths.

BOEM Central Coast - Morro Bay and Diablo Canyon Call Areas Slide
Slide from BOEM presentation showing the two potential areas for wind farms off the California Central Coast also known as call areas.

That was the end of the information stations. We decided to forgo the public comment room and make our comments online at home so we put our coats back on and left the building.

A Surprising Thing Occurred at the Meeting

This may sound ridiculous but the most important thing I discovered at the public meeting is that federal government agency employees are people, too. Each person that we spoke with seemed generally interested in sharing information, engaging in conversation, and answering questions.

I came away with a new perspective. Many, if not most, federal government agency employees are probably good at their jobs and care about what they do. Who knows, maybe the people at the BOEM breathed a sigh of relief when Zinke resigned.

If we had not gone to the public meeting, I would still have learned about the wind farm projects from other sources, but I would have missed the opportunity to meet and talk with the actual people responsible for managing offshore wind energy development in the ocean waters off the coast of my town.

Pick Your Own Public Meeting

Now, it is your turn to give public meetings a whirl. Find a public meeting about an issue or cause that matters to you and then go to the meeting.

For example, attend a school board meeting to support integrating Meatless Mondays into the lunch program and your child’s school. At a city council meeting, advocate for more electric vehicle charging stations in municipal parking garages. Go to a town hall meeting to voice your concern about oil and gas exploration endangering your region’s drinking water supply and ask your elected official what she or he is doing to protect your water.

Give yourself extra credit if you attend a public meeting and take an additional action like speaking during the public comment period, signing up for email notifications, talking with other people attending the meeting, filling out a survey, or putting the next meeting on your calendar.

Earlier in this post, I admitted that I had never been to a public meeting put on by the federal government (at least that I remember). Just like you, I have my own reasons for not having done it sooner. I overcame my inertia and you can, too.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

Featured Image at Top: Crowd of community members – photo credit iStock/makyzz

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