By DEBRA SAMMON and CAROL EBER
If you have not already heard of Petaluma Friends of Recreation, it’s time to pay attention to what hometown grass-roots democracy can accomplish.
In November 2009, individuals from various recreation interests in the city came to the table to talk collaboratively for the first time about a shared frustration that maintenance and improvements of existing parks, pools and playgrounds were being deferred, that new facilities were languishing on city drawing boards, and that this condition had gone on for too long. Conclusion: a need for a community solution to a community problem.
Collaboration would be vital for any success; none of us could go it alone. City government was failing to allocate the resources to address any of these problems. Change would have to come from the community.
During monthly meetings over the next two years the group added representatives from the running community and advocates for youth performing arts and the river. The group named itself Petaluma Friends of Recreation and began to investigate specific recreation needs. Petaluma Friends of Recreation reviewed community suggestions on recreation needs developed through public meetings by the Parks and Recreation Commission and narrowed the list from 24 projects to eight. Working with a municipal finance expert, the group chose a parcel tax over a sales tax or bond as the means to fund these improvements, so that funds would be protected for the stated purpose and funds for maintenance could be included.
A formal poll of voters on the proposed projects and tax rate received a favorable 61 percent response rate.
Friends of Recreation finally settled on a tax rate of $52 a year for residential parcels. Rates for all other parcels were set as low as possible in order to generate the $12 million needed for the eight projects. PFOR also wanted seniors and nonprofits to be exempt from this tax.
In mid-April Friends of Recreation set out to gather the 3,200 signatures of Petaluma voters needed to place this parcel tax on the November ballot. Neighbors from every corner of town offered to help; more than 150 volunteers, working for 60 days, gathered more than 5,200 signatures.
Friends of Recreation volunteers talked with thousands of people throughout the city, believing it important to talk about the measure and to convey that this was a truly grass-roots effort.
The Sonoma County registrar of voters confirmed in June that the group had collected more than enough signatures to qualify, and on July 16 the Petaluma City Council formally placed the measure before the voters.
This successful communitywide commitment to save Petaluma parks is unique in California because it is totally led by volunteers. The grassroots nature is also reflected in the way these funds will be managed. Once the voters approve this initiative, the funds generated will be placed in a special account at the city, separate from other funds. A Citizens’ Advisory Committee, made up of five volunteers who have no other involvement with the city, will be chosen by the Parks and Recreation Commission. This committee will report to the public on the use of the funds in order to ensure that they are spent on the eight designated projects and not grabbed for some other purpose.
The ultimate expression of the community’s desire for safe parks and fields, accessible playground equipment and trails, clean modern swimming facilities and river access will be marked by the two-thirds approval of Petaluma voters in November. Petalumans know that good recreation facilities mean a safer and healthier community and bring revenue to local businesses and, consequently, revenue to the city. As Petaluma’s mayor stated at a May council meeting about the initiative, “It’s the best chance that this town has any time soon to get the facilities they say they care about.”
Unlike other tax measures on the November ballot, this is a local grass-roots effort to raise local taxes to support local facilities that will benefit our local families and the local economy.
Debra Sammon is a 14-year Petaluma resident, parent and former school board member for the Old Adobe Union School District. Eber, also a Petaluma resident, is co-chairwoman of Petaluma Friends of Education.