About 50 residents gathered the other night to have their say on Sacramento’s economic future. Their top priorities: free community college, assistance for small businesses and more affordable housing.
Led by Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the city is hosting at least three public workshops as part of Project Prosper. Its goal: Come up with the right jobs strategy that boosts all neighborhoods, especially those with high unemployment and high poverty.
“This is the essence of democracy,” the mayor declared.
More civic participation by real people meeting face to face is great, especially in these dark days of deep divisions, conspiracy theories and fake social media campaigns. And if these forums build more faith in the city’s leaders, that could come in very handy since a tax measure will likely go before voters to help fund this jobs plan.
Yet even in a city that boasts a reputation for earnestly including citizens in decisions, officials must show that these workshops are more than window dressing. Voters need to know their suggestions and preferences will be taken seriously.
If elected officials go their own way regardless, these events can backfire, warns Kim Nalder, who runs the Project for an Informed Electorate at Sacramento State. “There’s nothing active citizens hate more than feeling like they’ve been taken for chumps and made to go through the motions when decisions have maybe already been made,” she says.
In recent years, some taxpayer groups and those against a city subsidy for Golden 1 Center would argue they weren’t heard.
So Kris Rogers, 54, a freelance writer who lives in Land Park, is a little skeptical her input will matter, but plans to keep speaking up. “You have to be persistent,” she told me at the workshop.
Mayor Steinberg is aware of the doubts. His chief of staff, Kelly Rivas, says while the city has some big-picture ideas, they won’t work without the help and expertise of residents. “We wouldn’t spend the amount of time and staff resources we are if we weren’t serious about getting, understanding and incorporating community feedback on this topic,” Rivas says.
Another potential pitfall is that it’s mostly already engaged community activists and neighborhood leaders who show up at these workshops, Nalder says.
At the brainstorming session Thursday evening in Freeport, one third of the participants said they hadn’t been to a city meeting in the last year. It was the same among the 105 attendees at the forum the previous night in Fruitridge. The third is Saturday at KVIE on West El Camino Avenue. There will also be opportunities for online input, and there may be some smaller meetings, including ones for non-English speakers.
The city is also consulting with national experts, who are pointing to what has worked elsewhere, such as the “cradle to career” education initiative in Louisville and the Grow Florida small business plan.
In some ways, this effort is similar to Next Economy, though that involved the region’s business leaders. In 2013, they put out a report that identified key sectors, such as clean energy, and set an ambitious goal of generating 35,000 new jobs by 2017.
Next Economy hasn’t had the lasting, significant impact that many hoped. But it also had bad timing, coming out of the Great Recession and during a turbulent transition among Sacramento’s economic development leaders. With industry hunter Barry Broome hitting his stride at the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, and a stronger local economy, Sacramento is better positioned now.
Steinberg laid the groundwork for the workshops in his first State of the City speech in January, calling for a new “capital equity” fund for jobs, housing, the arts and more. The fund could hit $3 billion and would be financed by the public – possibly through a sales tax increase and sale of city land – and through corporate donations.
Thursday night, the mayor told participants it’s particularly important to grow and diversify the jobs base to keep and attract young people who will drive the city’s future.
“We have listened,” City Councilman Rick Jennings told the crowd. “We have heard your voice.”
When the big reveal happens on this jobs plan, we’ll see how much.