The judge asked, “Has the jury reached a verdict?”

The jury foreperson replied, “Yes we have, your honor.”

The judge said, “Please hand your verdict to the bailiff.”

I had been called for jury duty before, but this was the first time I had actually served on a jury. Now after three weeks involving jury selection, criminal trial, and deliberations I found myself handing the bailiff the envelope containing a piece of paper where I had written the jury’s verdict knowing those words carried weight.

It has been joked that a weakness of our jury system is that the fate of the accused is in the hands of 12 people who are not bright enough to get out of jury duty. It is true that the jury I was on had 12 people (and two alternates) who did not say the obvious things that would get them excused. But that meant each person was willing and able to consider the evidence objectively and reach a conclusion based on the facts of the case. The people I served with were careful listeners, were able to express their viewpoint, and maybe most importantly, were willing to listen to the viewpoints of the others in the group and allow their own viewpoints to evolve as new insights developed.

A jury receives detailed instructions about the strict rules regarding evidence and the applicable law, and the verdict must be based solely on the evidence presented. I couldn’t help but see the parallels to how an environmental impact report (EIR) is the sole source of technical information (or evidence) about a proposed development project.

During jury deliberations, the 12 of us had to come to a unanimous decision for the verdict. I have a hard time listing many situations where 12 strangers can agree unanimously on anything. The comment “It is raining” might elicit a response of “No, it’s more of a drizzle.” Or “Star Wars is a good movie” may be countered with “It has too much violence.” Now expand that to 12 people agreeing on something very important. Yikes!

The only way the process can work is for the discussion to proceed in a collaborative, consensus-based way where everyone needs to be open to all possibilities. This is not easy, but it is remarkable to see it work.

I found myself wondering if there is any hope of this type of decision-making happening, even just a little bit, in local government. As I thought about things I have seen over the years in Carpinteria, I realized that much of what we do here is more collaborative and consensus-based than occurs in many other places. It is fairly likely you will see a City Council member in the grocery store, or a planning commissioner at the coffee shop or a city staff member walking around town. In fact, if there is a contentious development proposal being discussed, a speaker in favor of it might recognize a speaker opposing it because their kids play on the same soccer team. Our small intertwined community is a source of civility and common purpose which is a strong basis for consensus.

But here’s an important point: the rather tedious process of jury selection is designed to gather a group of people who can each put aside biases and preconceptions and decide the case based solely on the evidence, judgement, and common sense. This helps in consensus building since everyone starts with an open mind. That is important to remember as we strive for more consensus-based decisions in our community.

For a criminal trial, the concept of “reasonable doubt” is the standard for the verdict. To conclude someone is guilty, there must be no reasonable doubt about the facts. I see this standard as appropriate to apply to decisions about changes to our community. The environmental review process basically uses that standard. The facts (in the EIR) about a proposed project must show there is no reasonable doubt (such as a significant impact) that the project is good for the community.

Serious decisions require hard work and open minds. As I handed the bailiff the envelope with the verdict, all 12 of us felt a sense of pride that we had made a good decision.

Mike Wondolowski is president of the Carpinteria Valley Association (CarpinteriaValleyAssociation.org), a local organization dedicated to maintaining the small beach town nature of our community. In his 30 years of involvement in planning issues, he has witnessed visionary successes, as well as decisions that were later widely regretted. When not stuck indoors, he can often be found enjoying Carpinteria’s treasures including kayaking and snorkeling along the coast, running or hiking on the bluffs or the Franklin Trail, or “vacationing” as a tent camper at the State Beach.

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