The Common Knowledge team supported Marin County officials in planning and facilitating a very well attended educational forum on sustainable public pensions on the evening of April 3rd, 2012.  County leaders were pleased with the opportunity to model successful community engagement practices around a difficult financial issue, and felt this event served as a positive pivot point for future Board of Supervisors action. Based on community feedback collected at the forum, senior county staff recommended half a dozen actions to the Board of Supervisors at their May 1st meeting.

4-3-whole-room-other-side-300x141Marin was the first local jurisdiction in California to convene a public forum of this kind on this controversial topic.  A well-organized local advocacy group in Marin had been expressing its impatience with the pace of reforms to reduce the liability of public employee pension commitments. Many public employees in the county had limited understanding of the status and trends on pension obligations. Mona Miyasato, Chief Assistant County Administrator, led a planning committee for the forum that represented different perspectives and helped select panelists and review and agree on basic “background facts” which were sent ahead to registered attendees and presented at the meeting.  The county used a dedicated website for this topic and conducted proactive outreach to a range of organizations that helped expand the types of community members that attended.  Turnout exceeded expectations with close to 200 attendees.

Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey welcomed the attendees and set the informational tone for the three-hour forum. CK director Susan Stuart Clark was asked to be the neutral lead facilitator and gave a brief presentation of the “basic facts” Common Knowledge had developed with help from county staff and its committee. With that common framework, the main focus of the evening was to then listen to the six panelists who represented a wide range of perspectives from state and local government, employees and reform advocates. Each gave a brief presentation and answered questions from the audience, giving attendees an opportunity to hear different perspectives on how to make the county pension system sustainable.  Co-facilitators for the event were Greg Keidan and Mony Flores-Bauer. Volunteers from the League of Women Voters and the local Civic Center served as neutral table moderators and helped select questions for panelists from those submitted on index cards by attendees.  After the first round of questions for panelists were submitted by individual attendees, additional questions were developed and chosen by discussion at each table.  Panelists gave summary closing comments that indicated recognition of common ground for future action.

4-3-lwv-asking-questions-300x202The Institute for Local Government wrote and posted a story about the Marin County forum that succinctly summarizes the process, results, and lessons learned from this groundbreaking effort.  Other local governments are facing the same financial predicament and those that follow Marin’s lead can learn from this initial effort.  A key factor in the success of this forum was how organizers reached out to diverse residents and stakeholders to assist in designing the engagement process and educational materials.  While we initially hoped to provide more time at this event for small group facilitated dialogue, a “talk show” Q&A format allowed attendees to establish greater understanding and trust in local government around this heated issue. As trust continues to build, as evidenced by comments at the May 1st Board meeting, sustained efforts to educate and involve the public may offer opportunities for more dialogue about specific options.

You can read a full report about the Marin County Forum on Sustainable Public Pensions, including attendee feedback, download educational materials, and even view video clips of the forum on the Marin County Pensions Information Page.

This post was written by Greg Keidan and Susan Stuart Clark.