Mechanisms for public participation are often written into legislation with the intended effect of increasing democratized policy implementation but are rarely utilized by policymakers in a time-efficient, accessible, or right-sized manner. This is ever apparent in the implementation of California Senate Bill 1000, legislation that is struggling to connect policymakers with those who it was designed to account for.
This is proving to be the case for Santa Ana, where lead contamination and industrial siting hazards intersect with the city’s Black and Latino communities. A ThinkProgress investigation found hazardous levels of lead in almost a quarter of more than 1,000 soil samples tested in homes and public spaces throughout Santa Ana, and that the number of Santa Ana children tested with dangerous levels of lead in their blood exceeds the state average by 64 percent. Passed in 2016, CA SB 1000 was groundbreaking environmental justice legislation designed to address these issues through reducing pollution exposure and improving air quality. It was also designed to integrate environmental justice principles into the municipal planning process and engage the public before updating their general plans.
The legislation has no set guidelines for the public engagement process, as it is left up to a federated model where individual cities formulate their own. While a contextual approach for a specific community’s engagement can be valuable and reflects the principles of inclusivity, this method without the resources to determine what effective participation looks like within each context renders the attempt unproductive. The City has provided the General Plan Guidelines, which includes a chapter on Community Engagement and Outreach, giving theoretical advice on principles to consider when designing outreach, broad-based suggestions on engagement types, and a handful of examples from other local communities. Non-profit organizations, like the California Environmental Justice Alliance and Placeworks, have stepped in to provide guidance on all mandates in the bill, including community engagement, with an exhaustive SB 1000 Implementation Toolkit.
While a measure of guidance has been offered, a critique of the general plan updates is that they were rushed, and Santa Ana officials pursued engagement methods largely seen as inaccessible -- virtual events necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but in a community where reliable internet access is not the norm. Attorney General Rica V. Garcia has been at the forefront of this process, determining that although Santa Ana began its general plan update in 2016, its engagement process with disadvantaged communities began only three months prior to the release of the draft general plan update in August 2020.
In the letter from Attorney General Rica V. Garcia, he suggests many options for more meaningful engagement in light of the continued COVID-19 pandemic, including preparing an online survey to determine the top environmental justice-related priorities in the identified environmental justice communities, partnering with organizers from local environmental justice groups to identify the most effective ways to communicate with residents of disadvantaged communities that may lack access to the internet, or forming an environmental justice advisory committee to evaluate the needs of environmental justice communities in Santa Ana and draft the City’s EJ policies.
This case leaves us room to imagine how a Civic Voice Archive (CVA) could work in conjunction with the Attorney General’s suggestions, and build out an alternative mechanism to meet and build upon the community engagement methods deployed in Santa Ana. A CVA is not a direct engagement method, but rather a tool that could be used to bridge the gap between constituent and public officials as public engagement and planning for SB 1000 moves forward.
The CVA could play a role in two principal ways -- by providing an independent mechanism for data collection that could be leveraged and scaled up by local government for the implementation of SB 1000, and by supplying an accessible source of information for future lawmaking and planning that finds the balance between inclusivity and effectiveness.
A Santa Clara CVA, as an independent mechanism, could build upon the methods suggested by the Attorney General above through the centralization of expertise from key stakeholders, whether that expertise is derived from lived experience or scientific knowledge. A CVA provides a centralized community platform for the collected information so that policymakers can access distilled data (qualitative or quantitative) that is searchable, accessible, and current. In its design, a CVA will be built to prioritize accessibility and usability for both the public and policymakers and can standardize the way in which information flows are accessed.
Whether Santa Ana officials move forward with public comments, focus groups, surveys, or other public engagement methods, the CVA can provide a repository of this information that is processed and then available to both the public and policymakers. The multidirectional act of both inputting and using this collected data can enhance the degree of public participation, which in turn reinforces the officials’ goal of being effective. of inclusion and officials’ perception of effectiveness. The CVA, in conjunction with effective community engagement and data collection, helps push communities and officials closer to a legitimate relationship in which the process of lawmaking is viable in and of itself.
As an accessible source of information for future lawmaking and planning, a CVA can be useful past the implementation of SB 1000. While information collected now can be used specifically for SB 1000 in Santa Ana, this information may be useful in future lawmaking, both in California but also at the federal level, for lawmakers writing amending legislation or completely separate legislation on issues that intersect. A specific insight gained about the specificities of lead contamination and its effects on juvenile crime rates that is relevant in the case of SB 1000 might also prove relevant in another region’s legislation, and having this information stored, and easily accessible and usable in the public record increases the likelihood that lawmakers will consider the data legitimate and utilize it, ultimately creating better service delivery outcomes for the public. Integration into federal catalogue systems will allow for local and federal lawmakers to understand a similar truth, a holistic picture of how these issues are connected throughout the U.S.
A CVA can also act to strike the balance between inclusivity and effectiveness, which can prove useful within the SB 1000 case and for further use of this case’s information. While we value inclusivity and public engagement tools work to promote it, we also want the information gathered to be informative and utilizable. Attempts at inclusivity can often result in serious problems with the data due to long lists of undifferentiated concerns, facts tainted by stakeholders’ perspectives and worldviews, little access to clarifying dialogue or tests of expertise, few opportunities to scrutinize knowledge quality, avoidance of controversial issues, and an overwhelming abundance of information. This points to the idea that data, on its own, is often unworkable within the policymaking process.
With a CVA, data from myriad sources can be organized and testimonies, surveys, etc. can be tagged in a way that makes the information searchable. Through this distillation of the public record, we can catalogue accounts in a way that makes it easy for a policymaker to understand which communities are communicating what, understand trends and patterns, and identify outliers in the information. In the case of SB 1000, a policymaker could use the CVA to understand how lead contamination has impacted a specific zip code and compare this with other intersectional issues or demographic information. In the best-case scenario, data could be augmented to provide helpful visualizations or maps, which increases the likelihood of policy reflecting the needs of the collective community instead of valuing the voice of one particular constituency . This, in turn, improves the impact of public commentary.
Follow along for more case studies on how a CVA could improve our representative democracy and generate more contextual and local information for environmental decision-making.
 In this example, ThinkProgress produced this dataset which reflects current soil contamination levels, and this could be visualized for a congressional representative and their office to consider and move up to committees on the hill who are determining adequate risk levels, even perhaps duplicated and transferred to offices in the EPA.