The City of Petaluma, California, partnered with Healthy Democracy to convene the most intensive lottery-selected deliberative process in the United States to date. The Petaluma Fairgrounds Advisory Panel brought together a microcosm of Petalumans to reimagine community-led planning. The Panel made detailed recommendations to the City Council and modeled a more collaborative way forward.

Quick Facts

Topic: Future of the 55-acre Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds property

Context: Highly contentious city-wide issue; nearly everyone was a stakeholder

Panelists: 36 (residents aged 16+), reflective of Petaluma in terms of race/ethnicity, age, gender, location, educational attainment, housing status, and experience of a disability

Work: ~12 total days of in-person work, over 2 months

Result: 3 Panel-authored reports, presented to the City Council and the State-appointed Fair Board: 

  • Principles – Values that any decision should uphold, prioritized
  • Pathways – Potential site use options, prioritized
  • Final Report – Preferred visions for the Fairgrounds

The Context

In fall 2021, the City of Petaluma found itself with an increasingly urgent and contentious local problem to solve. The future of a 55-acre Fairgrounds property at the center of town had become the source of intractable debate. A different kind of democratic process was needed to get unstuck.

Petaluma, a mid-sized city about an hour north of San Francisco, is characterized by its strong agricultural identity. As 2022 began, the future of the Fairgrounds was uncertain. A 50-year lease between the City of Petaluma and the 4th District Agricultural Association – the property manager and annual Fair operator – was set to expire. Given that the property both hosts a beloved Fair event and also dozens of year-round community services, everyone would be affected by its future. And community tensions were running high. 

Supporters of the Fair organized a vocal campaign to preserve the property’s current uses, while others saw the land as an opportunity to advance a variety of community goals. But proceeding with politics as usual would have led to the same voices dominating the public debate. Meanwhile, Petaluma’s Latina/o residents, renters, youth, and other marginalized populations would be largely left out of the conversation. Elected officials faced a lose-lose situation amid a heated – and unrepresentative – community conflict. 

To harness deep and inclusive community engagement on an intractable local challenge, City leaders paved the way for a more collaborative process. They decided to put the community at the center of the Fairgrounds decision-making process by convening a Lottery-Selected Panel of everyday residents to recommend a path forward. 

The Process

In partnership with Healthy Democracy, the City Council unanimously approved the creation of a 36-member Panel, randomly selected to reflect the Petaluma community, that would collaboratively make recommendations about the future of the site. The Panel met from May to July 2022 for nearly 90 hours to gather information about the topic, identify and prioritize community values, and develop a series of three policy reports to guide decision making.

The Panel empowered new and diverse voices to be part of the democratic process – particularly groups who are typically left out of City decisions. Panelists were paid for their time and reimbursed for childcare, eldercare, and transportation costs. Professional moderators helped guide Panelists through a highly structured deliberative process. The City guaranteed Panelists a direct path to decision makers, giving them a unique authority distinct from other public advisory bodies.

During the initial information-gathering phase, Panelists heard presentations from over 30 stakeholders and experts. About half were selected as introductory presenters by a separate “Informational Advisory Committee” – composed of a diverse array of stakeholder organizations – while the rest were selected later by the Panel itself, to address specific informational gaps. The Panel also received background materials from decision makers and ideas from the wider public, via a community workshop and multiple surveys. 

Then, Panelists worked intensively in small groups, through a highly collaborative process, to hear each other’s ideas, process information, and workshop their recommendations. They deliberated with humility, curiosity, and respect in order to craft recommendations for the benefit of the entire community. See Panelists describe the process.

See Panelists describe the Panel process.

The Outcome

In July 2022, the Panel presented its recommendations to decision makers. The Panel then worked in subcommittees to continue engaging with the broader decision-making process. Panelists were financially supported to meet with community organizations and City staff, speak with the media, evaluate their own process, and host a charrette-style workshop with local architects to visualize the site use plans in their Final Report.

It was immediately clear that the process was transformational for the Panelists involved. The intensity of this Panel created a particularly cohesive and dedicated group, who are carrying the Panel’s reach well beyond the expectations of the project – and who have expressed a new commitment to local politics. 

Meanwhile, both the Panel’s recommendations and the nature of its cooperative process are already helping break down silos around this policy topic within the broader community. By suggesting thoughtful, well-researched, and nuanced visions for the site’s future, the Panel modeled collaboration amidst a ‘stuck’ community conflict. Initial decision making on the Fairgrounds by City Council is expected in October 2022.