The future of the Santa Monica Airport: Exploring a democratic lottery process

October 9, 2023 2:50 PM
by Amber Richane

UPDATE 10/11/23: After extensive discussion and public comment during the Tuesday, October 10, 2023, study session, the City Council directed staff not to pursue a lottery-selected panel process and to return to Council with a proposal for a traditional outreach process.

The item is expected to return for Council consideration before the end of the year. Click here to view the council discussion.


Blog post below is dated October 9, 2023:

In January, the Santa Monica City Council approved moving forward with a public process to determine the future of the Santa Monica Airport. The 227-acre property, that was once a park and is subject to Measure LC, represents nearly five percent of the city's total land area. The city has obtained authorization to close it to aviation uses after Dec. 31, 2028, and passed a resolution codifying that this should occur. Determining how to repurpose this land – one of the largest remaining undeveloped spaces in Los Angeles County – in a way that best serves Santa Monica is a complex undertaking, and, as with many land-use planning projects, is a significant point of interest for the community.

At the direction of City Council to explore additional community engagement strategies, staff had conversations with planners in numerous California cities and presented at 20 outreach meetings with the city’s Boards and Commissions, neighborhood groups, stakeholder organizations, and other interested parties. Based on this outreach, project staff have proposed a democratic lottery process to guide community engagement and input.

At its Oct. 10 meeting, the City Council will hold a study session on employing the democratic lottery approach as part of the Airport Conversion project. Since this proposed approach is new to our city, we’d like to share an overview prior to the meeting to provide some background.

What is a democratic lottery?
A democratic lottery is a different way to engage the community in the land-use planning process. It involves the public selection of a Lottery-Selected Panel (LSP), through a randomized lottery-based system that’s designed to draw in a broader range of potential participants and to help remove many of the barriers from participation present in the traditional land-use planning community outreach processes.

Panelists are everyday people who live in Santa Monica and reflect the demographics of Santa Monica. Given that most lottery-selected panelists do not have prior experience with the policy topic, the idea is that they have a unique capacity for identifying common ground solutions in the public’s best interest. This approach has been shown to result in an efficient, engaged public process with outcomes that enjoy broader community buy-in.

To bring the appropriate level of both breadth and depth, the city has engaged Healthy Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that has worked on a variety of subject matter topics with LSPs globally, to begin the exploration of implementing this process for the airport project.

If the City Council chooses to move forward with this approach, a formalized contract for managing the process would be brought back for approval.

How would the Panel be selected?
To select the Panel, 15-20,000 mailers would be sent to a random sample of Santa Monica households. City staff and Healthy Democracy (HD) would conduct extensive community outreach prior to the mailing so that residents know to be on the lookout for it. The mailer would give an overview of the Panel and what is required of panelists, and ask if the recipient wants to participate. Recipients can access information on the Panel in the language they’re most comfortable with and respond if they’d like to participate. Then, using an open-source software program called Panelot, HD would create hundreds of possible panels that are all balanced based on the demographics of Santa Monica. Finally, at a public event, the Panel would be randomly selected from the pool of “yes” respondents, along with an alternate.

Selected panelists would get tools and accommodations that are often absent from traditional public processes. They’d be offered language interpretation if needed and be reimbursed for some expenses incurred from participating on the panel. This sets a new standard for access and inclusion of all communities, mitigates unequal barriers to participation often faced by marginalized residents in traditional engagement processes, and helps ensure Panelists remain engaged throughout the entire process.

What would the Panel do?
The Panel would meet in-person for six weekends over the course of approximately nine months, anticipated to be fall 2024 to summer 2025.

Much like a jury trial, the Panel would receive a vast amount of balanced information before independently deliberating on recommendations. Panelists would hear from a diverse array of background presenters, stakeholders and technical experts, selected by an Information Committee, not staff, to understand the landscape of opinions and information on the topic.

Then, through meticulously designed small-group work aided by professional moderators, Panelists would carefully consider options, weigh tradeoffs and collaboratively identify solutions. All members of the public would be welcome to listen to all information presented to the Panel as meetings would be live-streamed, recorded, and have a gallery attendance option, adding to the transparency of the discussions and outcomes. The Panel would ask for feedback from the broader community multiple times throughout the process using online deliberative tools as well as in-person community workshops.

The Panel would produce a series of reports throughout the process, including 1) a prioritized list of overarching values, decision-making criteria, key interests and important activities that any final recommendation should take into consideration; 2) an outline of the different scenarios and visions for the airport site, including options considered and rationales based on lived experience and outside evidence; and 3) a final report that details the Panel's recommendations, including preferred airport land use(s) and rationales, dissenting opinions and supporting details.

These reports would all be developed, written and edited exclusively by the Panelists, in their own words, without staff or council input into the final drafts.

The Panel's recommendations would then be thoroughly considered by the City Council, the public, and city staff, with written responses provided to the Panel after the completion of each deliverable. The public would also have opportunities to engage with the panel’s recommendations and make comments. This process is additive to traditional outreach efforts and does not supplant the more typical ways for community members to participate in the planning process.

How do I learn more about this process?
For a more detailed discussion of the democratic lottery process and why staff are proposing it, please see the information item that was sent to city council on Sept. 25. Please also read the staff report for the Oct. 10 City Council study session and visit the project website.

Healthy Democracy will also hold three in-person community meetings and two virtual meetings to answer questions about the Lottery-Selected Panel process. The in-person meetings will take place Wednesday, Oct. 11, and the virtual meetings will be on Oct. 16 and 17. For more information and to register for one of these sessions, click here.

Authored By

Amber Richane
Acting Chief Operating Officer – Special Projects


Council And Commissions, Your City Hall