I went to Petaluma to learn what might become of the world’s ugliest dogs. The Sonoma County city also showed me the future of California democracy.
That future arrived with an unsexy name—the Petaluma Fairgrounds Advisory Panel, a version of a type of democratic body that is gaining popularity from Japan to Ireland. In Petaluma, they called this a “lottery-selected panel.” Its more common name is “citizens’ assembly.”
Citizens’ assemblies are composed of everyday people, chosen by lottery, rather than elected officials. The assemblies offer a potential path around problems that discredit democracy in California and elsewhere: the money that corrupts elections, the lobbyists who own politicians, and the polarization that makes complex and contentious issues too difficult for elected governments to solve.
Petaluma’s leaders decided to try a citizens’ assembly to avert a community-wide fight over the future of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. The property, at the city’s geographical and cultural center, is home to the annual five-day Sonoma-Marin Fair and its famous centerpiece event, the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest.
The site also hosts a speedway, two schools, emergency shelters, a popular Mexican food spot, and many other valued pieces of Petaluma. So, when city officials made clear that they wanted to rethink the future of the fairground, people in Petaluma worried that their traditions, livelihoods, and favorite tacos might be in jeopardy.
That led to conflict between the city, the fair, and the obscure state agency to which the city leases the property. How to avoid more fighting and expensive litigation?
Petaluma’s answer was to spend $450,000 to hire America’s leading experts on citizens’ assemblies, the Oregon-based nonprofit Healthy Democracy, to bring the people into the process. Officially, the citizens’ assembly would be charged with answering this question: “How might we use the City’s fairgrounds property to create the experiences, activities, resources, and places that our community needs and desires now and for the foreseeable future?”
The process started with a mailing to 10,000 randomly selected residential addresses in Petaluma, inviting people to participate in the panel. A few hundred said yes. From that group, Healthy Democracy used a computer program to create 1,000 randomized potential panels of 36 people, each representative of Petaluma by age, gender, race/ethnicity, location, housing status, educational attainment, and experience of a disability. (At the city’s request, Healthy Democracy aimed for slight over-representation of previously underrepresented demographics.)
At a public event in April, organizers selected one of those panels by lottery—number 811—to become Petaluma’s citizens’ assembly. When 12 of the 36 panel members did not confirm their participation, the organizers conducted another lottery, generating another 1,000 possible panels. On May 4, they followed up with a “reselection” event to fill the 12 open positions.
The future of democracy takes time.
Unable to find a location at the fairgrounds itself—its various venues were already booked—the panel met first at a community center and then at Kenilworth Junior High. Over three months, it would hold 81 hours of meetings.
This wasn’t volunteer work. Panelists received a stipend, equivalent to $20 per hour of deliberation, as well as child care and elder care, reimbursement for transportation costs, laptops, and language interpretation and translation.
The panel needed every minute. It reviewed complicated documents (from the lease to the city’s general plan) and summoned many stakeholders from a “menu” of more than 100 for question-and-answer sessions (the menu itself was drawn up by 14 local organizations who were themselves selected by lottery).
Anyone could sit in the “observers’ gallery” to watch the proceedings, which were also livestreamed on its YouTube Channel. But because participants are private citizens, some things were confidential. Healthy Democracy did not permit visitors, including me, to take photos of panelists, and did not give out their last names.
The meetings were more detailed, with more actual content per minute—and less political throat-clearing—than any city council meeting I have seen in this state.
I was struck by how careful the Healthy Democracy staffers were to stay out of the discussion. They politely refused to answer questions from panelists about the fairgrounds (content being the exclusive province of the panelists themselves). And they would not highlight areas of agreement or point to consensus, as mediators often do in community meetings. The staffers even used games of chance to keep elements of the hearings random; panelists drew from a deck of cards to determine the order of who asked questions of visiting stakeholders.
They also left these ordinary people to do an extraordinary amount of their own writing. The panelists—unable to delegate to staffers, as politicians do—produced three reports. The first, called “Principles,” detailed the body’s own values, criteria, and methods. A second, called “Pathways,” outlined 120 broad visions for the fairgrounds site that the panel heard or developed.
The third and final report offered specific recommendations for land use at the fairgrounds. The panel ultimately took a cautious approach to reimagining the site, seeking to preserve the fairgrounds’ most popular elements. Five “Key Points of Agreement” had 90 percent support from the body. Four preserved the status quo: maintaining the practice and history of agriculture at fairgrounds (before it was a North Bay suburb, Petaluma was the “Egg Basket of the World”); having a farmer’s market; keeping the fair and its ugly dogs; and continuing to operate an emergency evacuation center during earthquakes and wildfires.
A fifth idea, urging greater noise mitigation, was a response to fairground neighbors (in a related note, the panel expressed only mixed support for keeping the speedway for motor racing). The group was cool to novel ideas, from building a YMCA on the site to returning fairgrounds land to the Miwok people for a sweat lodge.
The panel had struggles. Its schedule got scrambled because of rising COVID numbers. Four panelists dropped out; others complained that, even with 100 hours, they didn’t have enough time to ask all their questions. Some stakeholders wanted a more detailed vision from the panel, rather than a list of recommendations.
There are questions about what legal impact the panel will have. In some other countries, citizens’ assemblies can put their proposals directly on ballots, for voters to implement. The Petaluma panel’s work could inform a citywide ballot measure, but the group itself has no legal power to force that.
Still, city officials and other stakeholders told me that the process, and the reports it produced, have defused conflict and created a more positive atmosphere for negotiations.
Panelists who agreed to be interviewed, on condition that I use only their first names, said the process has power because it begins and ends with the citizens themselves. “I participated in government-community processes where you have to go up and lobby a committee of officials,” one panelist, Robert, told me. “I think this works much better, and I would like to see more of it.”