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A smart convention plan

Californians have within their hands and their heads the power to lift their state out of the crisis that has gripped it for a generation. Voters are used to setting new courses here. They have done it in minor revolts and in electoral revolutions, but our current gridlock calls for more than just passing an initiative or recalling a governor. The state’s political structure was established by and for earlier Californians, with different needs and different aspirations. It’s time to redesign state government to suit the needs of the people who live here now. It’s time for a constitutional convention.

The Times enthusiastically embraced the concept of a convention when the Bay Area Council, a business group, floated the idea more than a year ago. We editorialized in favor, in broad strokes, again and again as the council was joined by other groups and individuals across the political spectrum and formed a coalition called Repair California. We saluted the coalition in October when it submitted language for two ballot measures, one to authorize voters to call a convention and one to detail how delegates would be selected and conduct their business. But we limited our endorsement to the conceptual -- the need for a convention -- while we picked through the details that Repair California drafted. We wanted to be certain that delegate selection would be fair and constructive, and that it would prevent, to the extent possible, a convention from simply becoming yet another arena for political parties and interest groups to wage the same battles that have failed to shape a workable California government.

We completed our review just as Repair California got final approval from the attorney general to begin gathering signatures to put its two measures on November’s ballot. Our verdict: The details of the ballot measures, from selecting delegates to staffing the convention to putting its draftbefore voters, are terrific.

We all know that this state has gone wrong. But why? It is not because its people have failed it, but because our governing rules -- written too often to protect those in power or to appeal to base instincts -- encourage narrow, short-term thinking. A strict single-subject rule prevents holistic approaches to government. Voters can adopt an initiative demanding government action -- more spending on education, for example -- without considering where the money will come from. Sometimes, even in the same election, voters will restrict government’s power to raise or redirect revenue -- without considering what programs would have to be cut.

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Some observers dismiss as ludicrous the notion that the typical Californian, with no experience in government or politics, could participate constructively in a convention to draft a constitution. Others are equally dubious that any political gathering would become anything other than a playpen for entrenched interests.

That’s the beauty of the Repair California plan. It allows people who are passionate about the state and its future to become experts by devoting close to a year of their lives to the endeavor. They will not be adrift on their own, but joined, as delegates, by appointees of nonpartisan elected officials. Neither entrenched politicos nor outsiders will have the run of the room.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for many people who would like to embrace a convention is the complexity of the delegate selection process. Political consultants, wary of losing their grip on the state’s governmental reins, are almost certain to lampoon the process as a ponderous and intricate contraption. They said the same thing about selecting delegates to redistricting commissions, but voters saw through their complaints and adopted redistricting reform in 2008. Complexity is the antidote to simplistic solutions that have helped create this morass.

Delegate selection takes several steps to explain precisely because the process is so carefully constructed. There will be 221 delegates selected by county and city elected officials and 240 chosen through random selection, application and election.

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For the county delegates: Each of California’s 58 counties will form a selection committee made up of county supervisors, mayors and school board members. Those committees will accept applications and then, at a public meeting, elect one delegate for each 175,000 residents. Los Angeles and the state’s two other largest cities -- San Diego and San Jose -- will have city, rather than county, officials choose delegates. Four Indian tribes will also make appointments.

For the other delegates: In each of the 80 Assembly districts, the state auditor will randomly select Californians from a variety of public databases, including the Department of Motor Vehicles and voter rolls, and send them information about becoming delegates. Only adult Californians who are legal citizens will be considered. Of those who receive an invitation and say they want to participate, 50 will be randomly selected to attend a presentation in each Assembly district, and then, after deliberation, each gathering will elect three delegates to serve.

It is not random selection, which might open the convention to anarchy; nor is it a nominating process by the state’s leadership. It is democratic, innovative and promising. It balances expertise with populism. It is fair and smart.

Delegates will meet, beginning no later than May 20, 2011, in open meetings staffed by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. It will be a full-time job, and delegates will be paid the same annual salary as state lawmakers. They will discuss and propose constitutional provisions in four areas: government effectiveness; elections and the initiative process; spending and budgeting; and governance, including the relationship between the state and local governments. They may not propose tax or fee increases or social reforms.

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This page will examine particular provisions, and address potential objections, in coming weeks. In the meantime, it’s important that the measures qualify for the ballot. This is a momentous opportunity for California. We’re ready to sign the petitions. We ask readers to sign them as well.


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