Plugging In

by Garen Yegparian

I went to an interesting forum about building democracy. It was a shorty–just a long lunch.

No–it wasn’t about how to help Armenia or some other similarly situated country. It wasn’t another scam whereby developed countries’ citizens’ money is redirected to the coffers of huge corporations in those same countries via the fictions created by the World Bank–IMF–or US AID of sending/lending money to developing countries.

Titled "Reconnecting Californians to Their Government: A Citizen’s Assembly for Political Reform," it focused on addressing electoral issues in California–but could apply to any state of the union or other country.

The basic premise is that some issues are of a nature that put elected officials in such a conflict-of-interest position that they simply cannot find appropriate resolutions. Specifically–the realm of concern in this case is electoral reform.

It seems British Columbia (BC)–Canada recently adopted the approach of convening a citizens assembly to address such issues. It was a huge success. The 160 delegates–drawn from a pool of self-selected respondents to a mailing sent to the electorate–came up with interesting solutions. When put to a vote–they garnered overwhelming support. Unfortunately–they’re not yet in force because of the supermajorities required to pass them. Despite this–the legislature–seeing the broad support–has decided to call another plebiscite on the proposals.

The panel was moderated by David Abel–publisher of Metro Investment Report and The Planning Report. The first speaker was Gordon Gibson–former Member of the Legislative Assembly of BC and architect of BC’s Citizens Assembly. He described the process by which their assembly was constituted–the thinking behind it–and pitfalls to avoid should California choose a similar route. California State Assembly Member Keith Richman (R-Northridge) was the next speaker who related his and his colleagues’ frustration at not being able to work out and implement an independent (his term) redistricting system for California. From this–he–joined primarily by Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburgh)–came to the conclusion that some arena was needed to hash out this matter–outside the bounds of the current political system. Then they learned of BC’s experience.

The other three panelists were asked to respond to the first two. They pointed out strengths and weaknesses. Harry Pachon–President–Tomas Rivers Policy Institute–raised the issue of representativeness and socio-economic exclusionary factors along with others. Sherry Jaffe–Senior Scholar–School of Policy–Planning–and Development–USC and Political Analyst–KNBC-4 Los Angeles–pointed out the unintended consequences of previous reforms–mainly stemming from the role of money in the system. Steven Hill–Director–Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation–stressed the need for a citizen assembly and cautioned against making "the perfect an enemy of the good" in striving for improvemen’s.

Former Speaker of the California Assembly Bob Hertzberg and city charter review consultant Raphe Sonenshein were in the audience and the moderator asked for their input. Hertzberg gave the citizen’s assembly almost zero chance of success–but still worth pursuing. Sonenshein expressed concern over the workability of such a large number of people. After a few questions from the audience–a light lunch and more discussion ensued. The audience was composed of a seemingly wide swath of the political spectrum. Besides those mentioned above–Sierra Club members and an elected Green Party member were present–at least that I recognized.

Unfortunately–only 3.5 Armenia’s (my best guess) attended this program that could be part of a major development in California politics. This would impact all of us.

On the bright side–the organizers were the New America Foundation and the USC Judith and John Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Interest. Daniel Mazmanian–Director of the Center and holder of the Bedrosian Chair in Governance introduced the whole program. This points to the importance of being plugged in. It’s good that Bedrosian has endowed a chair. It’s good that an Armenian holds it. It would be better if they kept those in our community who are interested in such matters better apprised of such doings. Thus would our concerns and voice be heard and have an impact early in the process.

A few months ago–on the passing of an elderly Armenian couple–California State University- Northridge received a sizable bequest from their estate–over seven million dollars. Much was the grumbling among our community. But aside from the obvious fact that CSUN was able to appeal to their altruism better than we–the gripes were misplaced on an additional plane. We should be concerned that when money from our community goes to other institutions–it should open doors for us–as a collective not just as individuals–to be better plugged in to the fabric of the societies we live in. These connections enable us in the pursuit of our national goals.

So remember–any time you can–plug us in through your particular connections and encourage others to think and act the same way.

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