Building the Future of Democracy in Petaluma, California

An interview with the Petaluma City Manager
April 20, 2023

This interview is part of a series spotlighting successful stories of co-governance models across rural, urban, and tribal communities.


Collaborative governance—or “co-governance”—offers a model for shifting power to ordinary people and re-building their trust in government. Co-governance models break down the boundaries between people inside and outside government, allowing community residents and elected officials to work together to design policy and share decision-making power. Cities around the world are experimenting with new forms of co-governance, from New York City’s participatory budgeting process to Paris’s adoption of a permanent citizens’ assembly. More than a one-off transaction or call for public input, successful models of co-governance empower everyday people to participate in the political process in an ongoing way. Co-governance has the potential to revitalize civic engagement, create more responsive and equitable structures for governing, and build channels for Black, brown, rural, and tribal communities to impact policy-making.

Still, co-governance models are not without challenges. The hierarchical and ineffective nature of our current governing structure is difficult to transform. Effective collaboration between communities and politicians requires building lasting relationships that overcome deep distrust in government. So far, successful models of co-governance tend to be local and community-specific—making it critical that we share stories of success and brainstorm ways to scale.

In this series, we share stories of co-governance in practice. For this interview, New America’s Hollie Russon Gilman, Grace Levin, and Lizbeth Lucero spoke with Petaluma’s City Manager, Peggy Flynn. In 2022, the City of Petaluma partnered with Healthy Democracy to convene a deliberative lottery-selected citizens’ assembly process. Citizens’ assemblies are a process for engaging communities in decision-making using a random sample such as sortition for a lottery system. Citizen assemblies bring together representative samples of the community—sampling across age, gender, race/ethnicity, and geographic location of residence—to deliberate on important local policy issues. Community members who deliberate on a policy proposal are compensated for their time and witness first-hand the impact of their decision-making outcomes. This process aims to take a more equitable approach in engaging the entire community on decisions that directly impact their daily lives.

The Petaluma case study is the first municipal citizens’ assembly in California. This process brought together 36 lottery-selected citizens—representative of the city’s geographic diversity—to help determine the future of the city’s publicly-owned and under-utilized 55-acre fairgrounds property. From mid-May to mid-July, the panelists met for a total of 90 hours to decide how the fairgrounds property could maximize the needs and desires of the community. After the deliberation process, the panelists wrote three major reports to share their recommendations with the city council to determine how to best utilize the fairgrounds. Below, City Manager Peggy Flynn talks to us about the major takeaways from this democratic process and lessons learned from local government.

Q&A with Petaluma City Manager Peggy Flynn

Could you tell us about the work you’ve been doing in Petaluma and how you got involved in the city government?

I'm not a traditional city manager. At least, that was not my trajectory. I started in journalism and that was my focus until I discovered local government. Petaluma is very different from many cities. It is also one of the oldest cities in California. Our infrastructure was failing and we had the worst roads in the Bay Area. When I came in, we were going to file for bankruptcy. We were barely getting by—and with two failed sales tax attempts and no local revenue sources, things were bleak. Fortunately, the community has always believed in Petaluma. When I was hired, our community passed a one-cent sales tax in the midst of the pandemic.

The pandemic showed us in other ways how powerful local government can be. We were regularly out on the street. We were helping businesses. We were helping our most vulnerable. We were making sure that food distribution was available and that our local food sheds were strengthened, and robust. And, there’s still so much we can improve on as we are reaching full normalcy post-pandemic. I strive everyday to make sure that people feel that the government is for the people by the people. It’s an old adage, but it’s true. Petaluma is my community; I don’t know that I would be a city manager anywhere else.

What are citizens’ assemblies, and how did you first hear about them?

Citizens’ assemblies are a way to give voice to our residents who haven’t participated or seen themselves in local decision-making. It creates ownership and leadership in our community, and demystifies local government.

I first heard about citizens’ assemblies during a democratic panel at the Cal Cities Annual Conference and Expo in 2021. To me, this democratic process seemed like the missing piece we had been waiting for to make participation in local government more inclusive and worthwhile. The city can implement the most robust engagement plan, but in most cases, we’re hearing from the most privileged people who have the experience, the loudest voices, and the time to show up. We weren’t hearing from the moderate viewpoints or the people who couldn’t make the meetings because they were working three jobs. Many people thought they didn’t have any power to influence “city issues”—but it is their city. I work for them. I can't make decisions without them. It is critical to have our residents at the table.

With these challenges in mind, after the conference, I bugged Linn Davis who co-leads Healthy Democracy’s program development and process design to learn more about citizens’ assemblies and how we can bring this to our community. Health Democracy is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that designs and coordinates innovative deliberative democracy programs. It was especially good timing as we were thinking about what to do with the city’s fairgrounds property.

How did you get the buy-in? How did it all work?

The fairgrounds affect everyone. It's 55 acres of valuable land owned by the residents. The city abdicated its responsibility for the property by giving it to the fair for a dollar a year, but our residents don’t have access to the property. We needed to ask people what they wanted to do on the fairgrounds with this valuable community asset. I knew if we did a traditional engagement process, we were going to hear from the same people we always do. Citizens’ assemblies offer a model to ensure more voices are heard in the process.

There are a lot of politics involved in this process, which can be a limitation for other cities that are interested in doing this work. I approached public distrust by emphasizing that this is about the community and the need to make government more transparent—this wasn’t about politics, this was the right thing to do.

Our citizens’ assembly was the largest convening Healthy Democracy has ever run. When they sent over the proposal of $425,000, we had some pushback on the budget, but I knew it was a worthy investment for our community members to experience real, authentic engagement with their local government. This is how much it would have cost to hire an external consultant to tell us what to do. This way, at least, I knew we were investing directly in community members.

We, as members of the local government, tried to remove ourselves from the process, to limit bias. We also oversampled for the demographics that don’t normally participate. At the same time, we were learning alongside the participants about the assembly process, and while there were definitely improvements we could have made, I think everyone left with a better understanding of how our government can work better with innovative strategies for inclusive democracy.

One thing I wish we would’ve done differently was to provide better context to residents about the assembly process and provide more front-facing information on our general [infrastructure] plan for the city regarding housing and land. We really wanted to give panelists full autonomy in the process, but this was new to all of us. We wanted to be able to communicate and learn from them as they were making decisions, but this process limited our interactions to eliminate bias. It also wasn’t clear how we, in government, could leverage this experience for longer-term engagement opportunities. In this process, we needed to find more ways to stay connected to our community members even after the process—including connecting them to leadership roles on committees, commissions, and councils. These are all important lessons to take away for future citizen panels.

How was digital technology integrated into this process?

During the second wave of COVID-19, we had to heavily rely on technology and adopt a hybrid environment. We budgeted for technology and tools to make sure this process was equitable and that we could provide the appropriate technology and support for each participant. We ended up having very small rates of attrition and were able to keep people engaged. We are also one of the few cities that have kept hybrid-style city council meetings. Community members can join and weigh in on items while they’re feeding their kids or taking care of other things in the background. We will continue to use hybrid models to accommodate more people in our community—even after the expiration of the emergency resolution, which forced the implementation of hybrid meetings during the pandemic.

People have a common misconception that only wealthy communities can afford exploratory models of engagement, but you mentioned earlier that Petaluma was facing bankruptcy and still made it possible. Can you talk more about that?

I think when you have fewer resources, it’s even more important to come together to figure out how to get things done, because what’s the alternative when business-as-usual is not working? And while we didn’t have as many financial resources, we did have a strong sense of community which is a significant asset. There’s a strong collective tradition here that believes if the government isn’t going to help us we’re going to help ourselves. I’m interested in other models of engagement like participatory budgeting to make communities more inclusive. I don’t want people to feel like they have to be experts in municipal finance to be able to weigh in on our budget.

Are there other city managers you’ve met along the way?

I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and ask me what we are up to in Petaluma. I want to engage more with other city managers about our experience with citizens’ assemblies. I am part of the International City Manager Association and we have an opportunity to engage with and learn from one another about new models of civic engagement. We need to tell people that this actually works and there are ways for city managers to work hand in hand with residents instead of being removed from community life.

We need to create support systems to keep and sustain leaders. If not, the next generation won’t want our jobs because we don't have the support systems we need. To be frank, there aren’t a lot of women in city manager positions. We should be supporting one another. How can we have other thought partners involved in this process?

How did the community respond to the citizens’ panel?

Our community is so engaged on so many levels. We're a small city, but we have a collective community. Still, we need to find ways to include the voices of those who aren’t sheltered, our Latinx community, and our youth. We have a youth commission appointed by our Council and has up to 20 commissioners from eighth grade through the age of 20. Their purpose is to be advocates for the well-being and development of youth in Petaluma, but they haven’t yet been involved with city-wide projects.

When we started the engagement on the fairgrounds process, it was a really powerful process. We started hearing from people that we had never heard from before. Healthy Democracy hired all local people from the community to do translation and help with facilitation. Once, I had a lady come in who was helping with translation during the citizens’ panel process and said, “I've lived in this city for 20 years and I've never felt more proud of being a Petalumian.” This was very emotional and so grounded in the community that it challenged people’s perceptions of local government and the city. This process demystified decision-making. We had people coming in wanting to watch the panel’s deliberations.

There was so much ownership over the process. Even though there wasn't consensus over the proposed projects, people supported one another. In the beginning, people were uncomfortable and scared to participate given the heightened political polarization, but in the end, we are all still neighbors. The panelists and our community should feel so good about the work we were able to accomplish.

What were some of the major takeaways you learned in this process?

I think we need a space for city managers to come together to share lessons and opportunities of engagement models happening across the country. Second, the argument that this can’t be done in other cities and municipalities around the country is not as strong as you think. How much does a dysfunctional government cost? Both in monetary and practical terms. We know better and we have to do better. Also, another argument I often hear is, “Why should we engage residents if they elected us to make the tough policy decisions?” Well, my response is: you can make a better decision based on the community's active participation. This is not taking away from our elected officials, but helping them make more robust, meaningful, informed decisions.

What do we lose when we do not have this? As I mentioned earlier, we are intentionally keeping the hybrid functions in our council meetings. We are meeting people where they are so we don't lose participation. Now I am thinking more deeply about how we can do more at all levels of our decision-making processes, not just with land use. We have committees and commissions, but guess who participates? The same people who have the time and luxury to do so. So, what if we start changing the circumstances by paying people? What if we provide people with the appropriate technology or childcare? What if we provide a livable wage? We could be a lot more functional as a local government. At the state and federal levels, that may be more challenging, but at the local level, this is absolutely possible, we just need pilot cities to start the process.


We would like to thank Peggy Flynn, Mark Schmitt, Maresa Strano, Jessica Tang, and Grace Levin for their incredibly helpful comments and editing support. Thank you also to Jodi Narde, Joe Wilkes, and Maika Moulite for their communications support. This would not have been possible without them.

Related Topics
Citizens' Assemblies Civic Engagement and Organizing