2010: A democracyodyssey

There’s been a lot written in this space about the “strong mayor” push coming from City Hall, and there will be a lot more to say between now and the June election. But in fact, local government may have more at stake on the ballot a few months later, in the election of November 2010.

First, consider the efforts of Repair California, a coalition of business and political reform groups determined to open a constitutional convention to overhaul the state’s constitution.

Organizers will soon be gathering signatures for two measures—one that allows citizens to call a constitutional convention (right now, that right is reserved for the state Legislature) and the other that would actually convene the historic meeting.

The process by which delegates would be selected to the convention is arcane and fascinating and, really, the subject of another column. And it’s important to note that backers have written their measure to make the convention off-limits to social issues like gay marriage and abortion, as well as third-rail issues like undoing Proposition 13 or otherwise raising taxes.

So what’s left? Well, a lot, including major budget reform, fixing the initiative process, revisiting term limits, even going to a unicameral legislature. And local governments, where government matters most to most of us, have a lot riding on the outcome of any constitutional convention.

One person who’s watching the process closely is Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities.

“We’ve seen a real overconcentration of authority at the state level,” McKenzie told Bites. “That has hamstrung local governments.”

Which is why the league has been in conversation with Repair California but is also pursuing its own attempt to grab some power back for the locals.

The league, along with the California Transit Association (a coalition of local transit agencies like Sacramento Regional Transit) and the California Alliance for Jobs (construction companies and building trades unions), have teamed up to push another ballot measure that would forbid the state Legislature from raiding local property taxes, redevelopment funds and transportation funds. “That’s money we need to pay for public safety and streetlights and parks,” said McKenzie.

At the same time, yet another group, called California Forward, is pushing its own package of reform measures for November 2010, including an initiative to give locals more control over property taxes and the services they provide. Locally, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors has already voted to express their support for California Forward’s efforts.

All of these efforts could potentially allow average citizens, in big ways and in small, wonky ways, to reinvigorate and refurbish their government. Maybe.

One sign that Bites will be watching: whether Repair California can follow through on its plan to qualify its measures for the ballot, gathering nearly 2 million signatures along the way, without using paid signature gatherers.

“We intend to collect the signatures purely by organizing,” said John Grubb, spokesman for the group. “Nobody’s done that in 20 years.”

It’s a long shot, and a strategy the group doesn’t talk about that much, probably because they don’t want to jinx it. If they can’t pull it off, no big deal, bring in the paid consultants. But the symbolism of an actual citizen-powered citizen initiative would be pretty powerful. It would offer a little hope that regular people really can, you know, repair California.