What Sebastopol thinks: CoMission discusses residential survey results

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, February 3, 2021

downtown Sebastopol

Fifty-five percent of respondents said they shopped online more and shopped less in general since the pandemic started.

The Sebastopol City Council received the findings of a residential survey conducted by consulting firm CoMission at its Jan. 19 meeting that posed questions for the council from start to finish.

CoMission co-principal Johnny Nolen said the survey of 1,179 residents (3% from within Sebastopol city limits and half from the unincorporated areas of the 95472 zip code) was the firm’s third survey for its Sebastopol community vitality project and the first focused on residents, following two surveys related to local businesses.

The city hired CoMission in 2020 to help build economic and community development.

The residential report spanned pandemic impacts, the local economy, public access and emergency preparedness with the aim of learning more about the community’s challenges, behaviors and perspectives to generate recommended courses of action, according to the full report at https://www.comission.group/sebastopol-vitality.

The survey quickly brought to light demographic representation slanted toward older, white and homeowning respondents, which consumed the bulk of council discussion.

As part of its presentation, CoMission proposed various areas of action to help support residential and business needs.

The council ultimately agreed unanimously, albeit informally, to ask city staff to consult department leaders and their staff on what recommended actions they view as priorities as council members choose theirs.

Mayor Una Glass said the city’s agenda-setting committee could arrange a study session to review council and staff views on the priorities and directions for action so they could decide if they wanted more information to pay CoMission for.

Results show local needs, concerns and attitudes

CoMission staff mostly sought respondents over emails obtained from the zip code’s voter database, Nolen said. According to CoMission’s survey report, over 1,179 people responded to the survey.

The responding sample was 84% Caucasian, despite comprising 66% of the area’s population, and only 3% Latinx, though the ethnic group makes up 10% of the region’s demographics, according to the co-principal.

Other ethnic groups were represented similarly to actual population proportions, according to his presentation.

Over 70% said they owned their home rather than rented, “which is quite high compared to the local owner occupancy rate, which is closer to 60%” Nolen said. Over half of the responses came from locals ages 65 and older, skewing the data again, Nolen said.

For pandemic impacts, Nolen said, “There’s a major shift towards poverty.” Almost 20% of the respondents said they expected to experience enough loss in household income between 2019 and 2020 to drop at least one income category due to the pandemic, Nolen said. “That’s one out of every five households.”

While deeper tabulation indicated Native American and Alaskan residents, 18- to 24-year-olds, 34- to 44-year-olds, two-person households and gender non-conforming and nonbinary respondents reported the most financial insecurity, Nolen said the data isn’t hard statistics but self-reported expectations.

According to his presentation, every non-Causasian ethnic group reported negative impacts at least 5% more than Caucasian respondents, he said.

While most respondents did not pursue rent or mortgage relief, Nolen said 7% did and only 4% reported that they received aid. He said these respondents may overlap with the 7% who said they “often” or “sometimes” worried they would run out of food before they could afford to buy more, as a possible group “experiencing more tangible, immediate financial crisis.”

For the local economy, 50% of respondents reported they were “not very comfortable” heading back into public spaces with businesses reopening and reclosing continuously, and 12% said “very uncomfortable,” enough to avoid going out.

According to Nolen’s presentation, respondents most commonly said they shop online more but less overall since before the pandemic, both at 55% when checking all that apply. At 25%, the second most typical response was using more delivery options and shopping local.

The most common responses to an open-ended question on how local businesses could make supporting the local economy a better option was competitive pricing at 31%, followed by accessibility and COVID-19 measures like greater online presence, curbside pick-up, delivery and following safety guidelines, Nolen said.

He said complying with safety guidelines resurfaced several times in the survey, “which indicates to me that there may be some evaluation needed on either how guidelines are being implemented and adhered to in the community or how the perception of the guidelines is being influenced by the way that our community kind of observes them.”

For public access, slightly under half said they hadn’t attended council meetings since they went online and didn’t plan to, while 40% expressed interest but hadn’t attended yet, according to Nolen. Regarding feedback for the city’s COVID-19 Resources webpage, Nolen said the survey introduced the weblink to 22% of the respondents, who didn’t know it existed, and 20% said the page was helpful.

Less than half of the respondents were prepared for an emergency, Nolen said. Checking all answers that apply, the survey found almost 72% knew the emergency evacuation routes, 58% reported they had “an emergency evacuation bag ready to go,” 49% said they had an emergency prep kit and almost 49% said they knew how to open their garage door in a power outage.

“And while over half on a couple of these is a great score, of course the goal is 100%, so this does indicate opportunities for improvement,” Nolen said.

CoMission’s recommended actions

Nolen concluded with proposed actions to support revealed needs. For emergency preparedness, Nolen recommended sharing emergency garage information as soon as possible, developing short but sweet emergency preparation webinars or materials, and reassessing the city’s current emergency education program and more.

For public access, he suggested actions like a virtual town hall “on future civic development,” looking into the city’s compliance with the health orders and resources and reviewing the open-ended responses to the city’s COVID-19 information.

In terms of the local economy, he recommended developing and supporting local businesses’ delivery and pickup infrastructure, “digital development” through the Sebastopol Chamber of Commerce and the Sebastopol Downtown Association.

Regarding pandemic impacts, Nolen’s presentation said developing “community support resources for poverty-related anxiety and shame,” food waste diversion and sharing information on “local hardship resources” were some possible actions to take.

Council’s considerations moving forward

Councilmember Diana Rich asked the first and perhaps most pressing question of whether Nolen felt the survey results accurately reflect Sebastopol’s city and surrounding demographics.

Vice Mayor Sarah Glade Gurney said more directly that the process appeared to inadvertently target more privileged residents and missed swathes of the population.

“I feel like it is close enough to be informational and help guide decisions,” Nolen said, adding that the survey’s “biggest failure” was missing the Latinx community and how CoMission relied on the voter database despite the various voter deterrents facing communities of color.

Nolen said, “It was a new effort for us going into a pandemic and doing a major public outreach without actually being able to canvass and talk to people.” Having more than a thousand respondents still yielded trends he considered representative.

Survey respondents generally tend to be whiter and wealthier, and CoMission could conduct “a full analysis adjustment against the demographic shift,” Nolen said. “I’m just not sure what we’re looking for in this study is going to change enough to make it worth the work.”

Rich agreed that data analysis depends on what the city council and city staff plan to do about the findings. She said the council could take it as given that the survey’s concerns are under-reflected. According to Rich, the percent requesting rental or mortgage relief sounded unusually low, but more data on the Latinx community, renter insecurity and food insecurity would likely lead to the same proposed actions.

Gurney said a lack of effective communication is a key takeaway from the survey and that the city needs to figure out how to connect people to resources and education that newsletters alone can’t solve.

“To me, that’s the bigger challenge than getting more data,” she said.

Councilmember Neysa Hinton said she wanted the city to preserve the rest of the funding set aside for CoMission for taking action.

Administrative Services Director Ana Kwong said over email Feb. 2 that the budget for economic vitality contracted services was $100,000, of which the city already spent about $62,000 through December 2020. CoMission’s November 2020 invoice to the city was about $10,000 for the residential survey’s billable time and other tasks, she said.

Councilmember Patrick Slayter said during the discussion, “I understand the need for fiscal restraint, but I’m also concerned that we have partial information and designing a program to assist a certain demographic that may not be the demographic that needs help is troubling to me and sort of paddling in the wrong direction.”

Glass agreed the survey yielded useful information to share with the Sebastopol Chamber of Commerce and the Sebastopol Downtown Association, and that she did not want to spend more money on data collection. She said the city could work with the county and community partners to meet needs probably greater than shown in the survey.

After the council agreed to have staff consult departments for their top priority actions while council members choose theirs to review at a future study session, City Manager Larry McLaughlin clarified that the allotted budget for CoMission’s isn’t empty yet and the firm does other work in addition to surveys with budgeted expenses.

This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at sonomawest.com