Envision quest

Sacramento direct democracy and Death Star stupidity

Let’s face it: Direct democracy doesn’t always work.

Here in California, we practice knee-jerk social engineering and rack up billions in bond indebtedness on voter-initiative schemes both hairbrained (“protecting” marriage, throwing away the key on 14-year-old criminals) and worthy (stem cell research, expanded mental-health services). Even the good ideas seem like they were written on the back of a cocktail napkin by the drunk or stoned. Which may be one reason why California hasn’t yet cracked the riddle on implementing smart, accountable marijuana legalization.

Since launching its We the People petition-gathering website (https://petitions.white house.gov), the Obama administration has been finding new, diplomatic ways of saying “no” and “hell no” to everything from allowing a number of southern states to secede (peace out, Texas) to building a friggin’ Death Star. (I already thought Texas was the Death Star State. Wait, Lonestar State? No, that doesn’t sound right.)

As much as I’d like to champion increased public participation, the cynic in me worries that people—especially online people—are too myopic, sarcastic and/or enraged to contribute meaningful solutions to the civic and social problems that bug us all. Then again, what are politicians but people with Brooks Brothers fetishes?

So, it was with meager expectations that I visited the website for Envision Sacramento (www.envisionsacramento.com), the city’s new public-outreach tool to engage its citizens. The website, which launched January 10, asks users to chime in on any number of local topics. As city spokeswoman Amy Williams explained to the city council last month, the website serves as a platform that allows staff to create surveys and solicit ideas. City staffers moderate the website and, supposedly, forward the best ideas to the appropriate officials.

In return, the more active users rack up points that can be redeemed for what Williams described as unique “city experience[s].” They include an autographed photo of Mayor Kevin Johnson, a free lunch with City Manager John Shirey or a tour of the city’s water-treatment plant.

Can we pause briefly here to acknowledge the stunning lameness of those participation bribes? Dear God, what’s the grand prize—Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell yells at you while you file Councilman Allen Warren’s tax returns?

Anyway, despite the underwhelming party favors, a decent number of people have logged on and are pitching their ideas. The latest challenge to pick one thing to improve the local economy drew nine replies as of February 13, while an early question asking users to offer their vision for the city over the next couple of decades raised 57 ideas before closing down January 31.

But would any of these proposals be good? Soliciting policy ideas straight from the people can be like taking movie recommendations from box-office results. And there are only so many Mormon-teen-vampire-academy-of-Hogwarts-Hunger Games movies I can stand.

I combed through all 57 of the vision suggestions to find out. The most popular—with 18 users seconding the idea and others submitting it themselves—was creating a river walk similar to ones in Napa and San Antonio. A Curtis Park resident’s recommendation to address the city’s self-esteem problem—titled “Hey Sacramento – you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and… [doggone it, people like you]”—was rated fourth by users. Sadly, Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley is currently busy with Minnesota’s image problems.

Neither of these ideas was picked up by the city staffers who moderate the website. Making Sacramento more bicycle friendly, expanding regional transit and reducing traffic lanes on Broadway were referred to various departments, however. The suggestion that the city offer monetary incentives to renovate buildings listed on historic registers was being actively researched by the city’s “historic preservation folks.” And the suggestion to provide free two-hour parking throughout the grid was quickly deemed “not implementable.” So stock up on quarters.

I have to say, I was a little relieved. I couldn’t find one person advocating the secession of Mansion Flats, for instance. Though someone with the handle “Joe G14” did suggest kicking “most of” the homeless out.

“It’s time to move them on to somewhere else. NIMBY.”

OK, that’s pretty bad. Maybe as punishment, Joe G14 and Shirey can grab lunch together.

Still, nothing quite so ridiculous as using public funds to construct an intergalactic planet destroyer. Then again, who needs a Sacramento Death Star when you have the Maloofs wreaking havoc for free?