Community Engagement

Community engagement during a Proposition 218 ballot measure is not required by law other than the noticed public hearing and ballot mailing. However, early community engagement is essential for any ballot measure. It is all the more important for a stormwater utility fee because residents are often not familiar with stormwater infrastructure (most of it is underground) unless there is chronic flooding or visible problems such as sink holes. The direct connection to local watersheds and habitats is not evident.

Any stormwater ballot measure should include a robust community engagement element, which educates residents on the importance of the stormwater services they benefit from as well as the fiscal responsibilities of the municipality. In most cases, the community will not have paid stormwater fees in the past. There may be reluctance to accept a new fee where none existed before.

Community engagement should be based on the “why.” Why is the community’s storm system important? Why is it important to upgrade our aging infrastructure? Why is it important to clean pollutants from the stormwater? The municipality must tell a compelling story and get that story out to the community. California law prohibits a municipality from advocating for a ballot measure, but they can (and must) educate residents about the needs and proposed solutions.

As seen in the bubble diagram at the top of this page, community engagement takes many forms and should be implemented at every stage of the process. While the planners and engineers work on the system needs and rate structure, community engagement efforts should already be underway and interwoven throughout the steps. And this should be driven by staff or consultants trained in community outreach and education (such as the municipality’s public information officer).

Essential elements in the community engagement process include:

Branding

In the context of stormwater management, branding refers to a process that gives meaning to specific programs or services by creating and shaping a brand in the public’s mind. It can start with a catch phrase or program name and be accompanied by an outreach campaign meant to educate the general public on the importance and value of the program. A branding effort takes time to develop and continuous effort to keep it moving. Branding efforts are scalable; some are best done on regional levels, but some successful efforts have been done for small communities as well.

Public Opinion Survey

Public opinion polling is an essential tool in any ballot measure – particularly for a measure that involves the approval of a tax, assessment or fee. The three primary objectives of a public opinion survey are: 1) learning the community’s priorities, 2) establishing meaningful messages, and 3) calibrating the willingness-to-pay for a program or project. This is discussed in more detail in the Community Survey section above.

Stakeholder Outreach

It is important for a municipality to know which local individuals or organizations may have an influence on the outcome of a ballot measure. This could include the Chamber of Commerce, local school districts, major land developers, environmental groups, commercial property managers, and other influential opinion leaders – some of which may sit on the City Council or other boards and commissions. While many of these may have a few ballots to cast, their ability to influence others may be where their true value lies. Some may be supporters, and some may be opponents, but all should be included in some type of communication directly or indirectly from the municipality.

Stakeholder must involve two-way information sharing. Stakeholders offer valuable input. Engaging them earlier in the process to develop a compelling story can boost the later success of the process. Some municipalities have formalized stakeholder processes by forming a committee or working group with identified community participants. One example is the Blue Ribbon Committee that Palo Alto formed on their second attempt at a stormwater fee (their first attempt failed).

Community Outreach and Education

This typically comes later in the process after the program needs and associated fees are better developed. When done early enough in the process, it can be a two-way process where input from the community influences the final product. But most community outreach occurs later in the process when it is mostly a one-way communication. As stated before, a municipality cannot, by law, advocate for a ballot measure, but they may (and should) launch a public education program to inform residents about the value and need for the stormwater program and proposed fees (the “compelling story”).

Community education has two elements: 1) communication infrastructure and 2) messaging.

Communication infrastructure (how you get the message out) can be formulated in many ways and can be tailored for each community. Options include stakeholder contacts, print media, website, social media, print publications, neighborhood groups, and newsletters. Other options include email contacts with homeowner’s associations and neighborhood leaders as well as web-based platforms like nextdoor.com.  Experience shows that the most effective communication mechanisms are small, local, and neighborhood-based with a personal communication or face-to-face element. The process may culminate in a series of community or town hall meetings.

Messaging and supporting information are initiated based on information from the survey and early stakeholder input, but is an iterative process with the municipal staff, consultants, and members of the public.  Throughout the process the messaging is refined and customized for each audience and medium.

The Proposition 218 process includes two opportunities for directly mailed information: The public hearing notice and the ballot guide/information piece. These are potentially the most powerful outreach components and should be crafted with great care and attention to messaging and supporting information. In addition, the municipality should develop some standing documents such as “frequently asked questions” and a “fact sheet” that help tell the compelling story. Here is the fact sheet from the most recent San Clemente ballot measure.

Other Resources

Excerpt from Washington, DC Revolution

Shifting the Mindset – Funding Stormwater and the Next Great Challenge

Building Voter Support for Fees, an excerpt from Determining if a Stormwater Utility Is Right For Your Community (Herbert, Rowland & Grubic, Inc.).

Communicating the Solution and Developing Support (part of the Local Government Financing Manual, Environmental Finance Center, University of Maryland)

Evaluating the Role of Public Outreach and Stakeholder Engagement in Stormwater Funding Decisions in New England