Plan Would Put Reform in Citizens’ Hands

Times Staff Writer

As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Year of Reform ends with a thud, here’s a concept: Give regular folks a shot.

Under a new proposal, voters chosen at random would form a “citizens’ assembly” -- no politicos allowed -- to study California’s political system and suggest improvements. Their ideas would pass muster, or not, with all voters at the ballot box.

The way California elects its lawmakers and other officials needs a face lift, says Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, but “the system is not designed to change itself.”


The Democrat from Pittsburg and Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge) plan to introduce the citizen idea when the Legislature convenes next month.

“However bad the public thinks [the system] is, it is worse,” said Richman. “I know this sounds corny, but what we’re trying to do is to restore representative democracy.”

Both men will be surprised if California’s Legislature goes along with them, so they’re also readying the proposal as an initiative, possibly for next year.

The concept is in its infancy, but there is Internet chatter about citizens’ assemblies and academic interest around the world.

Such a group would be like a jury, only larger. To start, 200 names would be picked randomly from voter registration rolls in each of California’s 80 Assembly districts. Those 16,000 voters would be invited to town hall-type meetings to learn details and express interest or withdraw.

Ultimately, one man and one woman would be selected, again randomly, from each district, 160 people in all. Ten more members could be added to balance the demographics. Members would receive travel expenses and a $1,000-a-month stipend.


Political insiders would be barred: Anyone holding elective federal, state or local office, their direct appointees and their immediate family members could not participate. Nor could political consultants or registered lobbyists.

Once selected, the citizens, endowed with a $20-million budget, would spend two weekends a month for one year studying the electoral system and alternatives to it and holding public hearings to get more ideas.

Richman and Canciamilla, each of whom is heading into his final year in the lower house, said they hope such a group would address the drawing of legislative boundaries, campaign fundraising and term limits. Their proposal says the citizens could make any suggestions they wished about any part of California’s electoral process except the way state judges are elected.

The group would report its conclusions to the Legislature, which would have three months to critique them, though it wouldn’t have the power to change them. The citizens’ assembly could then modify its own ideas, which would go on the statewide ballot in 2008.

The proposal comes as Schwarzenegger rings out his Year of Reform having lost all four initiatives that he promoted on last month’s special election ballot. And polls show that fewer than 40% of voters approve of his job performance.

But the governor who promised to “blow up” the boxes of politics and government isn’t the only one who has tried and failed to bring about change.

In the mid-1990s, a commission was set up to revise the state Constitution. After spending three years studying it, the panel suggested many fixes: a single-house Legislature, limits on fund-raising, an overhaul of the budget and the public school system, conversion of some elective offices to appointed ones and more. The Legislature did not approve any of them.

In theory, a citizens’ assembly could conclude that California’s political system works well and offer no suggestions. Richman, Canciamilla and the New America Foundation, a think tank pushing the concept, doubt such an outcome.

New America is a nonpartisan group based in Washington, with an office in Sacramento. Its goal is to expand the political center. It gets the bulk of its money from the Ford Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts and other such organizations.

“We have tried everything else to fix our broken government, and nothing has worked,” said Lenny Mendonca, a member of New America’s board and a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

He said he believes wealthy donors would give money to help pass an initiative that would authorize a citizens’ assembly. “There absolutely is money for things that people think could work.”

There’s already a blog devoted to “citizens’ assembly developments throughout the world.” It notes comments by professors at Harvard and at a university in Taiwan and proposals to convene assemblies in Britain, Australia and elsewhere.

No state in the U.S. has tried a citizens’ assembly, although British Columbia has and other Canadian provinces are contemplating it. In British Columbia, the group included a dog walker, a dry-wall installer, an Oxford graduate, a woman who managed a Vancouver cigar store and many more.

That group was in session for more than a year and held more than 50 hearings in the province, which has 4.1 million people.

David Wills, 59, a computer analyst, was selected when his name was pulled from an oversized hat. He is a regular voter but not part of a political party.

“Citizens, if they are given an opportunity to get involved, do,” Wills said. “It was an inspiring experience.”

One woman showed up for a meeting only days after giving birth. Another missed a few sessions because of triple bypass surgery. Only one person dropped out. The assembly opened each gathering by singing the national anthem.

“We started to collectively realize that we could change something,” said Shoni Field, 32, another member, who is a fundraiser for an environmentalist group. “This was far more powerful than going to the voting booth, which most people felt was meaningless.”

The group proposed a voting system in which people would mark three choices for the provincial government, so that three people, rather than one, would represent each district. The citizens said such a system would help elect a more representative body.

The idea needed 60% of the province’s vote to pass when it appeared on the ballot in May 2005 . It fell short, with 58%, but probably will be placed on the ballot again in 2008 after what advocates say will be a more vigorous campaign to sway people.

There is skepticism that such a group could work in California, which has more people than all of Canada. Bill Hauck boosts the idea but said he doubts it can succeed. He is head of the California Business Roundtable and was part of the mid-1990s Constitutional Revision Commission and similar efforts.

“The forces of the status quo will do whatever is required to protect the status quo,” Hauck said, predicting that huge sums of money would be spent to thwart the formation of a citizens’ assembly.

Beth Capell, a longtime labor and healthcare lobbyist, said she doubted that people not steeped in California’s political system could offer workable changes or that statewide voters would approve such a grand overhaul.

“The American way of electing people is the guy who gets the most votes wins,” Capell said.

Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, agreed that “the more radical the change, the tougher the sell.” But he said a citizens’ assembly “might be worth a shot.”

“They will have studied the issue, which puts them ahead of most politicians,” Pitney said. “It might be a way of bringing new thinking.”