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Community Matters: Finally, a novel approach to resolving the Petaluma Fairgrounds quandary

With years of stalemate, new process worth a shot, Argus-Courier columnist John Burns says.|

After two decades of failed attempts to determine the fate of a large, centrally-located parcel of public land upon which a fair has operated for nearly a century, Petaluma is about to embark upon an innovative new process that just might help break the political logjam and enable a decision to be made that best serves the entire community.

Since 1936, the Sonoma-Marin Fair has leased 55 acres of municipal parkland from the city of Petaluma. For five days every summer, the fair draws people from around the North Bay with livestock and horticultural exhibits, carnival rides, live music, food vendors, the world-renowned Ugly Dog contest and other attractions that support the city’s deep-rooted agricultural traditions. It’s a place where local non-profit organizations hold their fundraisers and also provides a safe haven during natural disasters like wildfires.

Operated by nine state-appointees to California’s 4th District Agricultural Association, the fair delivers an estimated $12 million annually in local economic benefits.

But its lease is an anachronistic arrangement under which the fair pays the City just $1 annually for rent yet must cover all maintenance costs for the property. Considerable confusion exists as to who, exactly, is the property’s rightful steward: Is it the owner (City) or the renter (State Fair Association)? The parcel is officially designated as city parkland, but language in the archaic lease agreement negates the city’s ability to use any of its park enhancement funds to upgrade the property.

Notwithstanding these anomalies, fair officials want to extend their lease, set to expire at the end of 2023, arguing it’s necessary to properly upgrade aging facilities and ensure the long term financial viability of the fair. Plans to renew subleases with several fairgrounds tenants, which provide most of the revenue that sustains the organization, cannot occur until there is certainty about the property’s long-term use.

At the same time, Petaluma’s elected officials are responsible for getting the most efficient utilization of the city’s largest and most valuable park property for the benefit of its owners, the citizens of Petaluma. Doing that will likely require reconfiguring the fairgrounds site so the fair can continue successful operations while opening up space for new public uses, thus enabling the property’s full potential to be realized along with improved connectivity to adjacent public facilities like the swim center, the library and the teen center.

Yet as the lease expiration date nears and lacking any agreement on what to do, the fair’s future has grown increasingly uncertain.

There have been multiple efforts to resolve the issue, the most ambitious being a joint committee of Petaluma City Council members and Sonoma-Marin Fair Board members which held numerous meetings several years ago to develop a joint use agreement or master plan for the fairgrounds site. But negotiations went nowhere and little has been achieved since.

Eager to find a solution to the quandary, Petaluma City Manager Peggy Flynn recently unveiled an entirely new approach that would utilize a novel “democratic lottery process,” the exact opposite of “politics as usual.”

Healthy Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit consulting firm with a solid track record of helping local governments tackle and resolve complex public policy issues, was recruited and an introductory meeting was held last month to outline the proposed process for the public.

But the meeting left some die-hard fair supporters unimpressed, with one fair board member gloomily predicting that the new process would pick “winners and losers” and “come back to haunt all of us.”

But that dour assessment flies in the face of the very successful outcomes being realized by cities around the world which have embraced democratic lotteries to solve their most difficult problems. That’s according to Healthy Democracy’s program director, Alex Renirie, who I spoke with earlier this week to get a better understanding of how the process could resolve the fairgrounds matter.

As explained by Renirie, a group of randomly selected Petaluma residents would receive a letter inviting them to participate on a panel examining the fairgrounds’ future. From willing respondents, an impartial and diverse citizens panel would be selected representing Petaluma’s unique demographics in terms of age, gender, location of residence, race and ethnicity.

In addition to interviewing dozens of stakeholders--including state fair officials, local government representatives, business and civic leaders, farmers, 4-H leaders and fairgrounds tenants and neighbors - the panel would conduct its own independent research to ensure they have accurate and thorough information that reflects multiple perspectives and incorporates all relevant technical complexities.

With the support of trained professional moderators, panelists would then collaboratively deliberate on potential policy options and prioritize alternatives through extensive discussions over multiple days.

In under six months, the panel would deliver its recommendation for consideration and possible adoption by the Petaluma City Council.

Process-wise, it’s not dissimilar to the methodology used by the Sonoma County Grand Jury which investigates and makes policy recommendations on a wide range of governmental matters each year.

According to Renirie, the democratic lottery model relies upon “everyday people showing extraordinary collaboration and sophisticated decision making. It’s helped a lot of cities around the world get out of sticky, lose-lose situations and adopt good policy decisions.”

Having no long-term plan for the Petaluma fairgrounds property has been an intractable political dilemma for far too long. Thanks to our city manager, we now have a very promising opportunity to finally resolve this thorny issue with enhanced public discourse, more diverse civic participation and a more cooperative, less divisive political process.

It’s certainly worth a shot. And considering the alternative--continued political stalemate - do we really have a choice?

John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.

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