I often reflect on four pillars that drive my public service and community engagement — Be There, Be Smart, Be First, Have Fun. “Being There” paves the way for everything else.
Like all local elected officials, I face these questions every day: What is the will of the community? What is in the true public interest? Am I hearing every voice, not just those that speak the loudest or find the most direct line to my ear? As a local elected official, I am accountable to my friends and neighbors for my actions. How I find my way to the answers to these questions will reveal the quality of my character, the values by which I live, the relevance of my service, and the magnitude of my impact. The truth that rises to the top every time I ponder these questions is this: effective service leaders must seek and maintain a deep understanding of the lives and concerns of the people they serve.
Early in my service, I made a deliberate choice to be where the people are, which often meant being everywhere all the time. Over the past 30 years, I’ve often felt like I’ve been discreetly impersonating a juggling magician—appearing, disappearing, reappearing, and always with lots of balls in the air. My choice to “Be There” has meant going to where people gather and where they live, not waiting for them to come to me or show up at a public meeting. This standard mode of operation has served me well, and hopefully made a difference for the people and places I have served.
As a School Board Trustee, I attended countless sporting events, art shows, and music performances. I went to every back-to-school night and PTA fundraiser I could get to. At every one of these events, people shared their stories about their children and their interactions with the schools. I cannot imagine how I could have served on the School Board without those insights.
As a City Councilmember, I met with people in their living rooms to talk about the neighborhoods, drove by trees that were slated for removal, walked sites proposed for development, and helped count the unhoused as part of the annual count.
As a County Supervisor, I have visited farms, businesses, libraries, drainage ditches, hospitals, habitat restoration sites, construction sites, fire-damaged landscapes, festivals and gatherings, food distributions, and so much more.
For the past 30 years, I have attended countless special events at faith communities and supported non-profit causes, often enjoying three or more events in a single day.
In all these roles, I have sought out conversations, strived to make connections, and discovered new knowledge and levels of understanding. With this as my foundation, I have never been disappointed. Sitting beside a parent at a high school basketball game, I learned about the cost of participation and the stress of competition as a student athlete. Visiting with a family concerned about a development project, I saw the view of birds and wildflowers outside their bedroom window. Sharing a table at a farmers’ market dinner, I listened to the challenges of transit in our region from the perspective of the parents of a first-year UC Davis student. Walking with growers and processors, I came to know their frustrations with misguided regulations and the market forces that drive their decisions. In every one of these situations, I was blessed with deeply personal perspectives and many gifts of insight and awareness.
It was 2008, midway through my City Council tenure, when I resolved to amplify and be deliberate in my practice of “Being There.” I established weekly public office hours, announced them to the world, and regularly set up shop at various locations around the community for people to visit. I varied the place, day, and time to make myself as universally accessible as possible and to ensure that my path was not always crossing those of the same old crowd. Many times, folks were just walking by and stumbled upon my station. They’d often toss me a kind “Hello!” or “Thank you!” Sometimes, just seeing me would jog some thought they’d been wanting to share, so they’d join me for a few minutes. Some came intentionally to see me, ready to discuss a particular issue. The topics ranged from individual constituent issues to policy matters that affected many. Once in a while, people would just hang around to listen to and connect with others. Some of my visitors even prepared formal presentations. I s kept written records of the topics and how we responded to the concerns.
When I joined the Board of Supervisors it became less feasible to conduct weekly office hours, so the frequency changed and I doubled down on going where people gathered. I began inviting groups of individuals interested in policy arenas to meet with me to and convened a series of topical work groups. When the pandemic unfolded, we switched to remote virtual sessions, including facilitated listening sessions for people impacted by wildfires.
My answer to the questions of knowing the will of the community, understanding true public interest, and hearing every voice lies not just the “what,” but in the “how.” HOW do we know? HOW do we understand? HOW do we hear? A big part of the answer for me has been to BE THERE. Be where the people are. Be where it matters. Be accessible. Pay attention. Of course, I fall short sometimes — we all do — but I always try to “Be There,” listening to the voices of my neighbors, understanding the insights and values of the community, and aligning my actions with the best sense of the public interest I can discern.