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City of Morgan Hill – Budget Deliberative Forum Story

Case Story

Community:City of Morgan Hill (Santa Clara County)

Population: 39,218

Summary: Community Conversations

When this south San Francisco Bay Area city predicted ongoing operating deficits, it launched a series of “community conversations” to get the public’s help in setting priorities.“The city was willing to cut back if needed, but wanted to have the community conversations before making these decisions,” says the city manager.The city engaged a consulting organization to help design the process, develop materials and train staff and volunteers to facilitate the conversations.

Leaders originally envisioned holding the conversations in backyards and over coffee in people’s homes. However, the press was critical of this process as not being sufficiently open, so the agency responded by holding the conversations in public facilities and making them open to everyone.

Over a period of about five months, more than 300 people participated in 26 different community conversations at community centers, schools, city hall and churches. Stakeholder groups, such as the chamber of commerce and an organization of Spanish-speaking residents, also hosted conversations. The city manager says that overall, participants mirrored the population at large.

Community members were asked to reach consensus on pursuing one of three broad options:

  1. Cut back and maintain minimal level of services;
  2. Raise taxes modestly to sustain current level of services; or
  3. Raise taxes significantly and concurrently increase levels of services.

Participants discussed the pros and cons of these choices with the understanding that their input would be considered in the city council’s final decision-making.

As part of education and outreach efforts, residents received a newsletter that described the issues and background information relevant to the conversations. Each conversation began with an overview of the budget issues and the conversation process, presented by a trained volunteer facilitator. Participants then watched a video that featured interviews with local residents representing a variety of opinions about local government, which also further explained budget issues and the dialogue process.

Decision-makers participated in a final set of conversations, along with other officials, advisory committee members and a number of residents who had participated in earlier discussions. Results of the prior conversations were shared as a foundation for this additional dialogue. Results indicated that residents did not want services reduced but would not support additional taxes unless significant improvements in services occurred.

This deliberative process faced several challenges from the start. While there were champions of the proposed process among elected officials and they unanimously recognized the benefit of community engagement, there were varying levels of understanding and support for this particular method. In addition, the local press was skeptical about the approach.

Despite these challenges, a follow-up poll indicated a high degree of public trust and confidence in the process. In addition, 75 percent of participants said they wanted to continue to participate and be kept informed.

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