Move to Give Community “Seat at Table”


((L-R) Moderator Nicole Vulcan joined by panelists Josh Burgess from the Central Oregon Civics Action Lab, Alex Rennie of Health Democracy and Bend City Councilor Megan Perkins | Photo by Simon Mather)

City Club Forum Floats Idea of Citizens Assembly to Tackle Topics in “Bend” Way

A recent City Club of Central Oregon forum asked whether Citizens Assemblies — an idea which has been gaining significant traction worldwide — could be a fresh way for local residents to own complex issues and contribute productively in a distinctly “Bend” way?

Discussion of this unique model for civics engagement, moderated by Source Editor Nicole Vulcan, took place at Bend’s Unitarian Fellowship of Central Oregon, with panelists Alex Renirie from Health Democracy, Josh Burgess of the Central Oregon Civics Action Project (COCAP) and Bend City Councilor Megan Perkins.

Claudia Chwalisz of Democracy First opened the thought-provoking conversation via video link by asking attendees to imagine that they receive an invitation one day from their mayor, inviting them to serve as a member of their city’s newly established permanent Citizens’ Assembly.“You will be one of 100 others like you — people who are not politicians or even necessarily party members,” she said. “All of you were drawn by lot through a fair and random process called a civic lottery.

“Together, you are broadly representative of the community — a mix of bakers, doctors, students, accountants, shopkeepers and more. You are young and old and from many backgrounds — everybody living in the city over age 16 is eligible, and anyone can take part regardless of citizenship status.

“Essentially, this group of 100 people is a microcosm of the wider public. Your mandate lasts for one year, after which a new group of people will be drawn by lot.”

Chwalisz emphasized this is not just a “thought experiment.” Since the 1980s, a wave of such citizens’ assemblies has been building, and it has been gaining momentum since 2010.

Over the past four decades, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have received invitations from heads of state, ministers, mayors, and other public authorities to serve as members of over 500 citizens’ assemblies and other deliberative processes to inform policymaking.

Important decisions have been shaped by everyday people about ten-year, $5 billion strategic plans, 30-year infrastructure investment strategies, tackling online hate speech and harassment, taking preventative action against increased flood risks, improving air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and many other issues. “As governance systems are failing to address some of society’s most pressing issues and trust between citizens and government is faltering, these new institutions embody the potential of democratic renewal,” Chwalisz added. “They create the democratic spaces for everyday people to grapple with the complexity of policy issues, listen to one another and find common ground. In doing so, they create the conditions to overcome polarization and strengthen societal cohesion. They bring out the collective intelligence of society — the principle that many diverse people will come to better decisions than more homogeneous groups.

“Research also shows that being a member of a deliberative body strengthens people’s agency. It creates a collective consciousness and allows us to harness our collective capacity.

“Moreover, deliberative institutions strengthen democracy by extending the privilege of representation to a much larger and more diverse group of people, allowing them to play an important role in shaping decisions affecting people’s lives.”

Burgess observed that Bend in particular already had a populous active in civil discussions. “The vision in forming a local citizens assembly is to help shape a more vibrant community offering a chance to have a ‘seat at the table’ and create a civil engagement hub,” he said. “People have low faith in public institutions, and this is a way we can learn about each other and gain empathy.”

Renirie said that participation in citizens assemblies was usually by special invitation, with a request to join a unique supplement to democracy. “We take demographic data and select targets and make it easy to participate. Generally, we have one hundred percent retention, reflective of the community interest.”

“We often learn about information in something of a bubble,” Perkins said. “City council wants to see what people think and this is an innovative way to make that happen.”

“It is imperative to have buy-in from local government in this process,” Burgess continued. “Final Memos of Understanding are signed at the end of assemblies where they receive and debate recommendations.”

Renirie said an average of two-thirds of the recommendations from California assemblies were formally adopted, adding: “It is our job to earn the trust of those who participate, as often people may come in distrustful.”

“We have been engaged across the Central Oregon community find out what is important to people, it is critical to get the community broadly involved,” Burgess added. “The first suggested topic for the prospective Bend assembly is youth homelessness, which I think is an issue everyone can get behind.”

Answering a question from a high school teacher regarding young people being distrustful of government and institutions, Burgess said civics engagement would see students help with moderation, and Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council (COIC) had received a grant to study youth challenges.

“The core to sustainability for a Bend Citizens Assembly is to work with the City’s budget; COIC is also a critical part,” Burgess said. “We need to find a way to get sustainable and philanthropic funding and are reaching out to the broader community. Government is divided and this is an opportunity to take an above-ground view.”

With its mission to support the region as a trusted partner helping communities identify and address unique and common needs through “collaboration, shared service delivery, technical assistance, information sharing and resource development,” COIC Executive Director Tammy Baney said it was well positioned to help facilitate exploration of relevant issues.

Regarding a question on how invitees are sorted, Renirie said that assembly organizers work with data from the county GIS department in compiling randomized lists, and anyone from the household can get involved.

Burgess said that assemblies look for a “supermajority” for consensus and there was a high, 75-80%, hurdle for any agreed opinion.

Vulcan suggested asking the community to submit topic ideas through a survey and emphasized the value of citizens assemblies in supporting conversations.

About COCAP:
As a new community entity, the Central Oregon Civic Action Project (COCAP) is a partnership between nonprofits (Dem Next and Healthy Democracy), OSU-Cascades and local governments. Their long-term aims are to improve local governance and help bring Central Oregonians together through service to our community.


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