In an effort to better engage the community in decisions, San Mateo County is offering consulting services aimed at putting the public at the center of the process. The Midcoast Community Council is set to discuss the idea during its meeting tonight.

In early January, Susan Clark from consulting group Common Knowledge presented her group’s work and proposed partnering with the MCC. Following the meeting, a subcommittee of council members met to discuss the partnership and will bring the question to the full council tonight. The meeting is set for 7 p.m. at 504 Avenue Alhambra in El Granada.

“If they are interested, the county and our partner Common Knowledge would like to work together, in collaboration with the MCC, to develop an outreach program,” said Deputy County Manager Peggy Jensen, who oversees the county’s contract with Common Knowledge.

One important aspect of the effort: Common Knowledge proposes to hold meetings in Spanish and on weekends to better suit members of the community who haven’t been able to attend night meetings in the past.

County Supervisor Don Horsley invited the collaboration among the MCC, the county and Common Knowledge after three years of working with the consulting group in 10 cities across the county. In 2018, the county partnered with the city of Half Moon Bay and brought in Common Knowledge to help uncover the community’s housing priorities.

“Those meetings have led to a variety of different things that the council has asked the county … to do,” Jensen said. “I know they’re now looking at second units and at affordable housing.”

According to Jensen and the program manager for the county’s Office of Sustainability, Jessica Mullin, the purpose of Common Knowledge’s roundtable-style community meetings is to offer an alternative to traditional meetings, where people take turns at a microphone.

“This isn’t that type of meeting,” Jensen said. “It’s really about listening and learning from others in your community.”

Mullin said that trained table facilitators keep things moving in roundtable discussion, take notes and ask every participant to share their views. She said this helps the county find a wider range of solutions. According to Jensen, meeting notes are then shared with county and council stakeholders and prompt reports.

Clark said that a benefit of Common Knowledge’s model is that it centers community members, rather than those in power, in the decision-making process. 

“The council members and the electeds and the commissioners are not at the table, they’re not up at the front answering questions, they’re actually strolling and listening,” Clark said. “So they can hear the community grapple with the tradeoffs.”

Jensen and Mullin said that meetings are designed to include underrepresented voices, which, on the Midcoast, they see as young families and non-English speaking residents. 

Mullin said they have seen success attracting those two groups in other communities by hosting some meetings in Spanish and during weekend hours. In an effort to get as many voices to the table as possible, Jensen said each meeting opens with a meal and offers childcare and translation services. 

In addition to roundtables, Jensen and Mullin said Common Knowledge harvests community input through other channels, including pop-up events in local spaces like parks and libraries and online and mailing outreach.

Mullin said Common Knowledge also hosts presentations and interviews with community organizations like senior groups, rotary clubs or business associations to get their input.

“It’s a model that we think has a lot of potential as we try to work on these complex issues in a more meaningful way, where the traditional format of a council meeting maybe doesn’t quite lend itself to those types of conversations,” Mullin said.

Just like with the roundtable discussions, Jensen said results from all community engagement are shared back and that some cities have even built websites to document all of the input they have received.

“We also update people on what we are doing on the issue going forward,” Jensen said. ”The idea is that there is continual engagement.” 

Jensen and Mullin said that if the council decides to work with Common Knowledge, the county will contract with the company and cover the costs of the work as well as provide staff for all of the events and outreach efforts outlined.

Clark said that bringing Common Knowledge into the fold as Midcoast communities debate the Connect the Coastside transportation plan is no coincidence, and Horsley agreed.

“I watched Susan work with cities on housing issues and I thought this was a pretty good process to bring the community together, to see if we can come to a resolution,” Horsley said. 

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