Policy Wonks Brainstorm on Boosting Public Engagement in Civic Life

Experts from the public, private and nonprofit sectors came together Thursday at Chapman University to brainstorm about how to boost public participation in local government, which by many measures has significantly declined from decades past.

Ideas at the all-day conference ranged from the seemingly straightforward – such as teaching local civics in schools – to the controversial, like merging all 34 cities in Orange County into a single mega-city.

While opinions differed on many subjects, everyone agreed on the need for better and more productive involvement by the public. It’s not only important for addressing challenges facing local communities, they said, but also essential for the survival of democracy itself.

The best way to revive democratic participation, panelists said, is to focus on the local level, where people feel most connected to policy outcomes – whether it’s schools, police, parks, or transportation – and have the most ability to make an impact.

“The place to start is probably not in Washington, D.C. It’s probably in a square in the middle of Orange” and cities across California, where people can transcend political ideologies and special interests “and look for common ground,” said Rick Cole, the city manager of Santa Monica and a former mayor of Pasadena.

Finding that common ground and collaborating with other community members, he and others said, will drive more people to show up on Election Day and make their voices heard.

Latino voter participation advocate Antonio Gonzalez noted that elections for many of California’s school boards and city councils have very low voter turnout, and thus are controlled by a small circle of power brokers.

“For the most part, we’re living in dictatorships. If you think America is a democracy, it is, and it’s not,” said Gonzalez, president of the nonprofit William C. Velasquez Institute. “If you live in these cities where you have low participation elections, they’re not democracies.”

The 2014 elections were a record low for voter participation in California, with turnout at just 25 percent of eligible adults in the primary and 42 percent in the general election.

And of those who do vote, many are completely unaware of the candidates for local elected office, other than from campaign signs and political mailers.

“We have made politics into a dirty, divisive, individualistic, dominating, competitive environment. And so it’s no wonder” why so many young people feel alienated, said Cole.
Young voters had the lowest turnout among age groups in the last general election. Just 8.2 percent of eligible California voters age 18 to 24 participated.

An obvious place to address this problem is in local classrooms, said Chapman University professor Fred Smoller.

While high school and college students are taught about the federal government, “there’s nothing in their textbooks about Orange County government,” said Smoller, who organized Thursday’s conference.

“Maybe if we turned the curriculum upside down,” there would be more public awareness and participation, he added.

Portland’s Public Engagement

Citizen engagement efforts can also be set up to bring government closer to the people in a collaborative way, panelists said.

Sam Adams, a former mayor of Portland, Oregon, described how upon taking office in 2008 he was forced to preside over difficult budget cuts.

Adams said he took that opportunity to conduct a broad outreach out to the community to develop a strategic plan that now guides city policy – and developed stronger relationships between officials and residents.

The project, known as the Portland Plan, involved over 300 public events and 20,000 comments, and culminated in an action plan that residents have taken responsibility for seeing through, he said.

The process engendered a sense of ownership among residents for their community and “a deeper trust and belief in the locale, the city,” Adams said.

Another example can be found in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, said Matt Leighninger, vice president for public engagement at the non-profit group Public Agenda.

In that city, hundreds of residents get together several times a year to talk about major policy issues facing community, like downtown development and planning, and collaborate on solutions.

And, he said, over half of the city council members in New York City have now implemented an idea popularized in Brazil: participatory budgeting, where community members collaborate on how to spend part of the city budget.

Politicians, Leighninger said, have realized that this outreach actually increases their chances of getting re-elected. “People will vote for people who give them quality opportunities” to participate, he said.

Panelists also emphasized the importance of fostering public places – such as plazas and pedestrian zones – where residents can have positive interactions and discuss important issues in their community.

“There’s no substitute to actually exercising, smiling, getting out” and being together with other people, said urbanist Mia Lehrer, pointing to projects like restoring the LA River as a recreation area.

An Orange County Mega-City?

A common refrain from local policy wonks is that government in the Golden State is too complicated and splintered.

“There are 5,000 governments in California,” said Cole, the Santa Monica city manager, noting that many groups of neighboring cities, like those in southeast LA County, each have small populations.

“Bell was one of those cities and they had no press paying attention to them,” he said, wondering what it would be like if Bell and its surrounding cities were merged.

Smoller, an outspoken proponent of merging cities, agreed. “Orange County loves small government – lots of it. Reminds me of a guy who goes camping…with 200 pounds of lightweight equipment,” he said.

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait supported that idea closer to home as well, saying Orange County “is ripe for that.”

“We’d be the third-largest city in the United States,” Tait said. “We’d be bigger than Chicago…rather being a suburb of Los Angeles.”

“And you could still keep your cities. New York has its boroughs.”

Such an approach would likely bring some financial efficiencies – compensation for the 34 separate city managers alone was about $10 million in 2011 – it’s unclear whether it would gain support from county voters, who tend to be wary of ceding local control.

Another idea put forth on Thursday was to pay voters, by enrolling them in a lottery to win a cash prize. Gonzalez said his group saw success when it offered a $25,000 lottery prize in a Los Angeles City Council district in 2013. There was a 40-percent increase in voter participation among those who knew about the lottery, he said.

But the efforts have to go deeper than incentivizing people to show up on Election Day, said Cole.

“I have found the most important way [to increase public participation] is to engage people between elections…when people understand their community and the decisions that get made…of course” they’ll vote, Cole said.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.