One Person at a Time: An Award-winning Approach to Public Outreach for a California Specialist

Mary Jo Ramey stresses building rapport while engaging residents in education on behalf of the Central Marin Sanitation Agency.

One Person at a Time: An Award-winning Approach to Public Outreach for a California Specialist

Mary Jo Ramey (left) with Julie Hoover, administrative secretary for the Novato Sanitary District, believes strongly that public communication is about building relationships.

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California’s Central Marin Sanitation Agency teaches about water conservation one person at a time, through public events and by building rapport through fun learning ideas.

The agency operates a water resource recovery facility in Marin County that releases clean effluent to the San Francisco Bay. The plant reuses biosolids and burns biogas to produce renewable electricity. The service area population is roughly 257,000 and represents six clean-water agencies in the county.

Relationship champion

Mary Jo Ramey, environmental compliance inspector and 14-year veteran with the agency, is the tireless champion who leads the education effort. She won the California Water Environment Association Community Engagement and Outreach Person of the Year award for 2018-19 and 2020-21. The key to her success is to build relationships. 

“When you are recognized around town, even at the grocery store, those relationships are very important and worthwhile,” she says. It helps get her message out when she explains what should and should not be flushed; promotes FOG programs; and tells what should not go down storm sewers.

She teaches residents about how good behaviors affect water and wastewater treatment and how that is critical to keeping the San Francisco Bay clean. In addition, she educates senior citizens and others about how to dispose of unused pharmaceuticals properly.

Along with her education efforts, she is the environmental inspector who visits dental offices, automotive garages, restaurants, San Quentin State Prison, and other sites to make sure they comply with regulations and do not send harmful substances into the sewer system.

Multiple venues

Ramey educates residents through venues including the Marin County Fair, Fairfax Ecofest, farmers markets, senior fairs, K-12 schools, Earth Day fairs and home and garden shows. At her booth she educates attendees through clever and engaging activities. She estimates she has reached several thousand residents through these events.

A big hit at public events is a 10-question quiz that the utility changes up every year. According to Ramey, residents love being challenged on their knowledge about how to help the environment and how their actions can affect wildlife. 

Every other year the agency gives out hats and T-shirts that feature an endangered creature in the Bay Area, such as sea otters, octopuses and leopard sharks. The T-shirt and hat are prizes for residents who answer all 10 questions answered correctly.

One attendee in his 80s comes every year and has taken the quiz since it began over 14 years ago. He has won all 10 T-shirts and always wears the shirt from the original fair when he took his first quiz. He brings the other T-shirts along all pressed and ironed to catch up with Ramey and her colleagues, and to take the current quiz.

COVID challenges

Although COVID temporarily changed Ramey’s approach to education, it did not stop or derail her. The agencies created Dotty the Water Drop and Tommy the Toilet Paper Roll videos and placed them on its website to help teachers virtually instruct students about wastewater treatment. 

The agencies also posted a video of the Rock Steady Juggler, an environmentalist and performer who is popular with students. Before COVID, the juggler performed at school assemblies.

“It was critical we stay in touch with the residents throughout COVID,” Ramey says. “Establishing and maintaining relationships became even more important in educating the public and getting our message out when we weren’t able to meet in person.”   


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