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The case for a citizens assembly (San Francisco Chronicle) February 12, 2006

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

William F. Buckley once said he would sooner live in a society governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than in one governed by the faculty of Harvard University. Reframing the governance question for California voters — who, by all measures, are at the peak of frustration with elected state officials — why not empower an assembly of citizens, randomly selected, to address some of the tough policy questions facing the Golden State?

Before you dismiss the idea, consider that a citizens assembly — in which everyday citizens deliberate on select issues of state policy — is one more implement in the toolkit of direct democracy that Californians love to employ. Frustration with political gridlock in Sacramento has led to an overflow of direct democracy as voters in just the last five years have placed more than 70 propositions on the ballot and have recalled their governor. But incubating ideas in a citizens assembly makes a lot more sense than cooking up ballot propositions in some political consultant’s kitchen, an approach voters finally rejected in the November special election.

Two California legislators have now proposed a bill to create a citizens assembly to address questions of state political reform, a matter invariably too hot for politicians to handle. Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, and Keith Richman, R-Northridge (Los Angeles County), hope to build bipartisan support for a state constitutional amendment to create such an assembly. A process overseen by the secretary of state would generate representative pools of citizens in each assembly district from which one man and one woman would be randomly chosen. The assembly would meet twice a month for a year to propose suggested reforms.

Could this work? It depends on how you define success. If one measure of success is to re-engage ordinary citizens who have checked out of the political process, it seems promising. With polls showing more than 70 percent of Californians frustrated with elected state officials, there would be little to lose on that score. Imagine the level of interest in regular folks in the state Capitol deliberating on the tough issues of the day. If reality shows have taken television by store, why not reality government?

Another promising result might be a more collaborative process than we now see in Sacramento and fresh, bipartisan solutions to some of California’s huge problems. Work done last year by Viewpoint Learning provides encouragement. In half-day and full-day dialogues with 500 ordinary Californians, participants discovered that, given time, they could come together on a range of nonideological, pragmatic solutions to thorny policy problems.

Finally, it should be noted that citizens assemblies have a track record, albeit limited. Faced with similar voter frustration and legislative gridlock, British Columbia convened a citizens assembly to propose a method of proportional voting, an issue as contentious as political redistricting in California. The Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform involved 160 randomly selected British Columbians, who studied various approaches and proposed a complex set of ideas for voters to consider. Although their proposal did not reach the required 60 percent of voter approval, missing by 2 points, there was such strong support for the ideas and the process that the Legislature will present the reforms to voters again at the next election. New Jersey has also experimented with a citizens assembly on tax reform. Democracy is hard work and, for those who participate, a citizens assembly will be heavy lifting. But we rarely value those things in which we have little investment, so perhaps it’s time for some of us citizens to roll up our sleeves and invest in democracy in California. Leaving it to the professionals is simply not working.

This op/ed appeared on Page E-7.
URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/02/12/EDGC6HH1JS1.DTL

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