Of late, residents of Pollock Pines have been gathering in Town Hall meetings, learning how to beat the odds in the uncertain business of community improvement.
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Campaigns for municipal betterment often fall to political or funding exhaustion, particularly if the public is absent from the narrative. Not any more, according to District 5 Supervisor Norma Santiago and expert facilitator Michael Ward. There is a strategy that is working, and it started with Pollock Pines’ own people.
Styled “Nature’s Wonderland,” Pollock Pines has 6,700 residents and a traditional streak of self-reliance. It’s a mountain town astride Highway 50, more than a dozen miles east of Placerville, and the last serious stop before Lake Tahoe. The 8-square-mile footprint is covered with timber, and in the winter, snow. People in this community tend to look out for their families and themselves. Life revolves around the commute, getting enough firewood and squeezing in some fishing or skiing. Taxes are high enough. Calls to make something prettier or to fix what isn’t broken can easily disappear in the noise of living. But the call to remodel the city can start a lively debate.
“People joke that it’s like herding stray cats,” Ward says with a smile. “Not a bit true. It’s about helping people define and fulfill their very own vision.”
El Dorado County supervisors want to help Pollock Pines get the facelift, but don’t want to be the surgeon. “Think of us as a partner with resources,” said District 5 Supervisor Norma Santiago, referring to the county’s CEDAC program. That would be the Community and Economic Development Advisory Council, a county program tailored to serve such partnerships. These funds are not pulled from general tax receipts, but from a lodging user fee known as the Transient Occupancy Tax, though the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors has not currently approved tapping into this revenue.
Santiago and Ward have helped CEDAC take root in communities such as Meyers, Cameron Park, Diamond Strings and El Dorado Hills, but the prototype most watched is Pollock Pines.
Marianne Argyres, chairman of CEDAC is emphatic about it. “Many communities are signing up, but Pollock Pines is light years ahead.”
Much credit for that goes to resident Jeanne Harper’s six years of tireless consciousness-raising among local businesses. “We developed our own grass roots committee, the Community Economic Development Association of Pollock Pines (CEDAPP) six years ago.” She smiled. “Now, thank goodness, we have the county’s own CEDAC outreach to work with.”
Harper, a former school principal, summarized the years. “Foothill issues have remained somewhat the same for a long time,” she observed. “Present an idea and someone will immediately see destruction of the town’s charm, or degradation of its natural beauty. Others will charge that special interests profit while most residents get nothing but higher taxes and traffic snarls. Others are suspicious of government seeking a heavier hand in local affairs. We bring an optimistic viewpoint to the party, but we’re more than a business club. In the bigger picture, we represent everyone’s better interests.”
Santiago agreed. “It’s not the county’s initiative at all. The vision comes wholly from involved residents.” The energetic overseer of California’s largest political subdivision knows the path is challenging. “When a community decides to improve itself, it can’t know all the obstacles,” Santiago said at the Feb. 25 meeting at the Pollock Pines-Camino Community Center. “No matter the merit of a given project, without a foundation of solid research, vigorous debate and eventual support from a clear majority of affected folks, the likelihood is nothing will happen. But Pollock Pines is defining its needs, creating its standards and learning to speak with one voice. We’ll be there with money and support.”
Indeed, the key to success begins with self-definition and includes specific needs. Agreement among stake-holders can be difficult. Santiago’s secret weapon is the professional facilitator Michael Ward, an unassuming mixture of Mr. Rogers, Henry Kissinger and General Patton. He is a practitioner of the critical path, a seasoned expert in bringing disparate, if not hostile, parties into the circle. Professionally, he runs HighBar Global Consulting, and is typically well rewarded for his effectiveness. With CEDAC, he works for free. His is a labor of love and civic dedication, and that adds credibility to his role.
“Thus far the three community meetings have inspired a good turn-out of 50 residents or more per event. But,” said the facilitator, “there is always a risk that strident partisans will override less powerful voices, offend entrenched interests, embitter the visionaries and finally crush progress.” But he doesn’t plan to let that happen.
In the February meeting surprising progress was evident after two hours of discussion. “We’re exactly where we need to be,” he said after the third meeting, studying the white board where Scribe Judi McCallum had listed important ideas suggested by the floor. “We made progress tonight.”
McCallum, assistant to Supervisor Santiago, waved at the densely inscribed easel. “All this is 100 percent their ideas. We’ll put it together into a report that will serve as a launching pad for the March 25 meeting.”
Santiago, Harper and Ward know that to avoid a predictable impasse, even before there can be a single proposal for a project, there needs to be a slate of definitions and procedures agreed to by a majority. That protocol will eventually include consensus on the goals, costs, means, benefits, and organic necessity of any proposal. But first the baby steps, beginning with the introduction of the facilitator.
In the same meeting Ward spoke of the necessity to educate all voices on the importance of each stage of the path. He agreed democracy is sometimes messy. In the soup of debate, the coordinator stayed calm, listened, and listened some more. With one eye on the clock and one eye on the white board, he acknowledged each contribution, each input, and asked qualifying questions. He kept his patience against the de-railers. With no skin in the game, this Lake Tahoe resident allowed no agenda except progress. He repeated the mantra that every detail of the program would be the product of the people in the room. “All reasonable voices have a good chance of being reflected in the outcome.”
Santiago preached the need to articulate the town’s identity before spending time and money to improve it. “Time has changed Pollock Pines, at least where jobs are concerned. Many families have suffered since the mothballing of the lumber mill a few years ago.” She faced the attendees, arms in the air. “So what is your current vision for this community and its future? What are your ideas?”
Harper’s favorite motto echoes the sentiment. “It’s your community! What do you want?”
“Before any specific project can be addressed there must be a set of ‘guiding principles,'” said the Santiago at the outset. “These are generated by you the residents, and will establish rules of fairness, honesty, equanimity, consideration of future generations and other important, timeless values.”
Santiago embraces strong standards. “Once we have objectives, guiding principles and other critical path points established, suggestions from any quarter must conform. That keeps it all moving ahead, and prevents hijacking of the vision.”
The meetings have produced four categories potentially benefiting from Pollock Pines’ reach for an upgrade. These are presented as recreational, historical, “Nature’s Wonderland” branding, and General Facelift.
On the county’s part, an advisory council composed of Pollock Pines residents (selected with the approval of the others), will do day-to-day liaison work with Harper’s CEDAPP, the Chamber of Commerce and other municipal representatives to find common ground and get to work. Community meetings will remain essential.
With guiding principles providing a straight path, specific ideas can be considered. Should there be a 20-acre business park? Should a broadband communications network be developed? Should blue highway signage indicating historical and comfort sites be increased? Can the lumber mill be reopened if access to sufficient trees can be guaranteed? Can a university extension be established here specializing in natural resource study? What about community murals or a memory garden?
“There’s a ton of possibilities for a new-old Pollock Pines, but people have to get involved early,” said Harper. “Yes, it’s tough when both parents work, and of course it is sometimes difficult for seniors to leave the house at night in cold weather, but if the residents don’t do it, who will?”
Santiago agreed. “Communities are either growing or they are slipping, nothing stays the same. Every community in El Dorado County can become a better version of itself beginning here and now.” She smiled broadly. “And we’ll be happy to visit each one and explain it all.”
The next meeting is scheduled for March 25 at the Community Center, near the bowling alley at 2675 Sanders Drive, Pollock Pines. Jeanne Harper can be reached at 530-613-1332.