dilemmanade
Friday, March 05, 2010
 
99 council districs for Los Angeles

Back in the early 80s some friends became interested in the German Green Party, which led us to become involved with a bunch of people who were similarly interested in and around Los Angeles.

We became excited. Couldn't we do here what they were doing there? There were a lot of meetings, and we set out to start a Green Party here.

I must pause to mention that around this time I saw Petra Kelly speak, and she advised that the German Greens came together from a whole lot of local movements around ecology, social justice, nonviolence, and grassroots democracy. And that perhaps America had to develope civil society in general before a Green Party would be possible here.

The point is that a bunch of people, thinking deeply, with good intentions, got excited about drawing up documents like position papers, and a party platform, in the belief that great and good changes were possible and that our intentions combined with hard work at hammering out those documents would lead to great and good changes. The atmosphere was electric, and the documents were good. In my opinion at the time, we were doing amazing things.

But Petra Kelly was right, of course. Our attempt went nowhere, and when a Green Party in the U.S. did come to exist, it went nowhere.

Now, cast your gaze back to the founding fathers. I believe the atmosphere was electric then, too, and for the same reasons. A bunch of people, thinking deeply, with good intentions, and a belief in the possibility of positive change were working together to make positive change.

(That is not what is going on in government today, by the way.)

And it was in that atmosphere that the founding fathers did an amazing thing. They set up a democratic form of government with no sovereign, with checks and balances, rule of law, and so on.

But those democratic institutions and processes were set up to enable an agrarian country of a few million to self-govern. They did an amazing thing, but they didn't anticipate the industrial revolution, the concentration of wealth that would occur, corporate personhood, finance capitalism, or the corruption of political power through campaign financing. Nor did they plan for a hundred fold increase in the population.

Back to the early 80s. I gave a talk to fifty or so people about the history of democratic representation in Los Angeles. Back in 1850, when the city was founded, seven city council members seemed about right for a couple of hundred people. A hundred and thirty years later the population had grown by three or so million, but the number of representatives had only grown to fifteen. Districts are so big that name recognition is the only "issue" in most elections, and Council members are so powerful that they need not pay the slightest attention to anyone's wishes except their campaigh donors'.

In the late 90s, when some other people with good intentions tried to enact minimal reforms (e.g. 30 instead of 15 council members), the council drew up its own charter reform ballot initiative which got more votes, and subverted any substantive change. (We now have neighborhood councils with no power or visibilty, deliberately absurd voting procedures, and no decrease in the size of council districts.)

We have the same problem statewide and nationally. The state and the nation are becoming ungovernable in part because there is no effective feedback between the people and the elected representatives. Because the districs are so big. Because the politicians only need big donors to achieve name recognition.

What should really be done?

Los Angeles should have 99 districts, based on the boundaries established by the neighborhood councils. They would still be big! But they would be small enough that council members would have to work for their constituents or risk losing elections. (And perhaps we should lower their pay to ~$30K per year. That way there'd be no significant fiscal impact.)

This will not happen, of course. Because the politicians and the fatcat campaign donors who own them won't let it happen.

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