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Randomly Chosen Panel Should Guide Airport's Future, Officials Say

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By Jorge Casuso

September 25, 2023 -- The future of Santa Monica Airport should be hammered out -- not by the usual community activists and civic volunteers -- but by randomly selected "everyday people," City officials told the City Council Monday.

The information item from top Public Works officials proposes using a democratic lottery to "engage new residents through a randomized selection process," instead of relying on "the same self-selected individuals."

After meeting in person for six weekends over the course of some nine months starting next fall, the panel would make recommendations to the Council for the 227-acre site that under a 2017 agreement with the FAA would cease to operate as an airport at the end of 2028.

The panel will be charged with what City officials have said "is likely to be the most transformative urban planning event of the century for the City” ("Airport Plan Takes Off," Airport Plan Takes Off," January 25, 2023).

The lottery system -- which is not common in North America -- "would result in a panel that demands broad demographic representation, and minimizes the influence of special interests," said the report from Public Works Director Rick Valte.

Previous long-range planning efforts by the City have "suffered tremendous opposition from vocal community members whose resistance to key elements of each plan -- or even the entire plan itself -- resulted in protracted land use battles," the report said.

These battles have "placed Council in a difficult position of navigating narrow majority perspectives and fostered a 'winner/loser' paradigm that left many in the community feeling disenfranchised from the decision-making process."

On the other hand, lottery-selected panelists "are everyday people" who "do not have prior experience with the policy topic" and "have a unique capacity for identifying common ground solutions in the public’s best interest.

"Much like a jury trial, they receive a vast amount of information before independently deliberating on recommendations," the report said.

Panelists would be selected from "a stratified random sample of individuals aged 18+, a microcosm of the community in one room."

The City will proactively invite "randomly selected residential addresses" to participate, making it "as easy as possible for those chosen to say 'yes.'"

A panel of approximately 40 people would be randomly selected from the resulting pool.

"Because Lottery-Selected Panels are composed of individuals who typically do not volunteer for other City processes, they are capable of more deliberative arbitration of controversial topics," the report said.

Unlike a City Board or Commission, the panel would function more as a focus group that would be supported, rather than directed, by staff as it gathers "a wide range of evidence," the report said.

In addition to stakeholders, who would be involved throughout the process, the panel would hear from expert presenters who can be questioned, call their own presenters and review documents. It also can survey data and hold listening sessions, walking tours and open public workshops.

"Rather than being presented with pre-packaged information from a
sponsoring government agency, Panelists hear from dozens of background presenters, stakeholders, and technical experts to understand the landscape of opinions and information on the topic," according to the report.

"Then, through meticulously designed small-group work aided by professional moderators, Panelists carefully consider options, weigh tradeoffs, and collaboratively identify solutions."

After deliberating on the data collected, the panel will "move into a deliberation phase -- creating guiding principles, exploring long-term visions for the site, and finally crafting recommendations about the Airport’s future."

The proposal by Public Works officials comes as the City embarks on a public process that is funded with $1 million in the previous fiscal year budget, $250,000 earmarked in the current fiscal budget that began July 1 and $3 million in the 2025-26 budget, City officials have said.

The approach was developed by staff at the direction of the City Council and "after a series of 20 outreach meetings to the City’s Boards and Commissions, neighborhood groups, local and regional stakeholder organizations, and other interested parties," the report said.

The City has "engaged" Healthy Democracy (HD), a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, to manage the Lottery-Selected Panel, according to the report.

According to Healthy Democracy's site, "the group is a US-based nonpartisan nonprofit that designs and coordinates innovative deliberative democracy programs."

"We Believe in elevating the voices of everyday people bringing new faces to public decision making, and designing a more collaborative democracy together," according to healthy

The City Council is scheduled to hold a study session on the proposal at its meeting October 10.

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