As part of the City of Sebastopol’s Community Vitality Project, city council members heard the results of a survey conducted by a local organization and will eventually host a workshop alongside staff to take action based on the survey results. The council received the survey results at their regular meeting Tuesday, Jan. 19.
The City of Sebastopol contracted with CoMission, a local community organization that organizes for businesses, governments and nonprofits, in 2019 to work alongside the Chamber of Commerce, Business Council and Community Benefit Council in carrying out the “Community Vitality Project.” Co-Mission has been working with the city for seven months and, according to the group’s website, the type of work the firm has engaged in with the community has changed due to the pandemic.
“Since the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are swiftly shifting our focus and priorities to address the new challenges and face the resiliency demands of the community not only as they were prior to COVID-19, but especially in the wake of the pandemic,” the website states.
CoMission Chief Operating Officer Johnny Nolen presented the residential survey, which included 1,179 respondents residing within the city limits and nearby unincorporated areas. Nolen stated that due to the usage of the voter database to conduct the survey, the results were skewed towards more affluent, Caucasian and older residents in the targeted area.
CoMission has carried out two other surveys focused on local businesses and organizations and worked with the city to offer zero-interest micro loans of up to $10,000 to local businesses hard hit by Covid-19-related lockdown measures. The council allocated $100,000 for CoMission to carry out surveys and other aspects of the project, with $67,000 already spent, according to Councilmember Neysa Hinton.
Responding to constructive criticism of the results, Nolan said, “I feel like it is close enough to be informational and help guide decisions. I feel like the biggest failure is in not reaching the Latino population in this area. That was an oversight on our part. It was a new effort for us to go into a pandemic and do major public outreach without actually being able to canvass and talk to people. I do think, though, that across over 1,000 people, we can see some of the trends both in more structural things like income and also more emotional and intellectual things.”
The survey covered four broad topics: pandemic impact, local economy, public access and emergency preparedness. Staff and council members will use this information to make decisions on how to work with business and nonprofits to improve on identified problems.
Despite the lack of representation, the survey showed a significant increase in the experience of poverty, particularly in younger and non-heteronormative and non-binary respondents. For instance, at least seven percent of respondents identified a need for rental and food assistance, a number that is likely lower than the actual number of those in need, due to survey error.
City Manager Larry McLaughlin said staff, who work regularly with CoMission on projects related to the Community Vitality Project, could use the information despite discrepancies to work towards the project’s goals. For instance, improvements to the website could help increase civic engagement. Also, educational campaigns on pandemic safety could help encourage Sebastopol residents to shop locally, as respondents expressed a desire to support the local economy but reluctance to do so out of fear of the pandemic.
Mayor Una Glass called it “embarrassing" that in spite of the Sebastopol community’s declared commitments to equity, the survey the city commissioned failed to reach marginalized communities. Glass went on to say that socioeconomically disadvantaged residents likely have little time for civic engagement, as they are likely more focused on immediate needs and concerns, such as paying rent and feeding their children.
“What activities and issues do we need to pursue to make it worthwhile to them? I’m not quite sure how we find out about that, but part of that is having a survey that includes them,” Glass said. “We need to figure out how to do this better.”
Glass recommended reaching out to school districts and faith-based organizations to engage members of the community that the original survey left out.
Glass said, however, that despite the discrepancies in the survey population, she was excited to see the Community Vitality Project moving into the next steps, where she hopes cooperation between the city government, businesses and nonprofits will improve the lives of Sebastopol residents.