"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Friday, May 30, 2008


An interesting piece on the controversy over an initiative proposed for the state ballot by opponents of same sex marriage that could potentially overturn a Clifornia Supreme Court ruling that has granted same sex couples equal rights under marriage. - Editor

The California Supreme Court's Gay Marriage Opinion:
The People of California Have the Power to Undo It By a Ballot Initiative Amending the State Constitution, But How Far Should That Power Extend?

Thursday, May. 22, 2008


In a highly-publicized ruling last week, the California Supreme Court required the State to offer marriage to gay and lesbian couples on the same terms as those enjoyed by opposite-sex couples. That decision will undoubtedly prompt volumes of analysis and commentary. In this column, I will offer a few preliminary perspectives and thoughts on the aftermath the ruling might generate.

The People of California Can Negate the Court's Decision, But Should That Power Be Considered Routine or Somewhat Disturbing?

First, as has been noted by my fellow FindLaw columnist Michael Dorf and others, the California high court ruling might be trumped by the voters of California as early as this November. Opponents of gay marriage have gathered and submitted signatures to qualify an initiative measure (the "California Marriage Protection Act" or "CMPA") for the State ballot this fall that would, if enacted, amend the California constitution to provide that "[o]nly marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized" in the State. Because last week's decision by the California Justices was rendered on the basis of the California constitution alone (and not the federal Constitution), everyone seems to agree that the people of California can, by a simple majority vote in November, act to foreclose same-sex marriage in the Golden State.

From one perspective, this possibility of overturning a judicial result by direct democracy seems obvious and unremarkable: Since the people of California have ultimate power to decide what they want their own state constitution to say and do, they can – if they choose -- remove any state constitutional protection for same-sex couples that may currently exist.

But viewed from a different angle, the people's power to undo last week's ruling via statewide simple-majority popular vote seems more troubling. After all, one of the rationales relied on by the California Supreme court in invalidating California's statutory ban on same-sex marriage was the notion that government discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation should be viewed skeptically, because gays and lesbians are groups that have been historically victimized by invidious and prejudicial treatment that bears no relationship to their ability to perform in or contribute to society. This history of irrational prejudice, the court said, was "the most important factor in deciding whether" laws that treat gays and lesbians differently from straight persons should be constitutionally suspect.

But if the very reason why discrimination against gays and lesbians is constitutionally wrong is that the political majority has tended in the past to treat them unfairly, isn't it odd that the same political majority can, with a simple initiative vote in November, impose its will on them yet again?

The short answer to this question is this: Maybe it is odd, but constitutional law is odd in that way. By definition, whatever the California people want the California constitution to be, it will be. In this regard, I might disagree a bit with Professor Dorf's assertion that "California constitutional law [does not] embrace the view that minority rights turn on the majority's willingness to recognize those rights." In a very real sense, California constitutional law – and all constitutional law, for that matter – does embrace that exact view. As my brother and (sometimes)FindLaw colleague, Akhil Amar, has put the point: "In the end, individual [and minority group] rights in our system are, and should be, the products of ultimately majoritarian processes."

The CMPA campaign should be a reminder, too, that what is legally and constitutionally permissible should not be confused with what is morally right. While constitutions may be the "supreme" law that people put down on paper and enact and enforce, they may not be – and often are not – the supreme embodiment of that which is just. Ultimately, even constitutions operate in a larger context of right and wrong.

The California Supreme Court Based Its Ruling Only on the California Constitution, Yet the U.S. Constitution Will Come Back Into Play if CMPA Passes in November

State constitutions operate not just in the larger context of morality and justice, but also in the larger context of the U.S. Constitution. And that fact raises some interesting questions about the interplay between California and federal law. In particular, what effect does the federal Constitution have on last week's ruling, or November's initiative outcome?

As to last week's ruling, the federal Constitution is beside the point. As noted earlier, the California justices ruled under state law only, and there is certainly nothing in the federal Constitution that prevents state law from recognizing same-sex marriage. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has not indicated it is yet ready to recognize a federal constitutional right to gay marriage (a point to which I shall return later in the column), states are free to do what they want in this area by way of affirmatively equalizing marriage rights.

Possible enactment of the CMPA in November raises more complicated federal questions, however. Suppose the initiative passes. Going forward, California would no longer issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But what about those same-sex marriages that are sanctioned by California this summer and fall, before the initiative is approved? Will those same-sex marriages continue to be respected?

That depends on a few things. First, it isn't clear (to me at least) that the CMPA by its own terms will, if enacted, affect already-existing California same-sex marriages. Initiatives in California are presumed to apply only prospectively unless they themselves provide for retroactive application. There is no explicit wording in the CMPA concerning its applicability to already-existing marriages.

Yet some gay marriage opponents may assert that the CMPA's ban on recognizing or treating as valid same-sex marriages (remember, the CMPA says "only [opposite sex] marriage. . . is valid or recognized") will prevent the State from continuing to recognize or treat as valid any same-sex marriages for any state law purpose going forward.

It's not clear today what "continuing" in-state validity or recognition would really mean (since California's domestic partnership laws conferred tangible benefits on registered same-sex couples even before last week's ruling on whether the label "marriage" should be extended.) But to the extent that it matters whether couples who marry this summer continue to be able to use the term "marriage," federal constitutional law may prohibit the retroactive application of the CMPA.

Under the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment, states are limited in their ability to upset settled expectations about important property and liberty interests. And for the California constitution to tell same-sex couples that they are free to marry (as it currently does), and then tell them (after the constitution is altered in November) that their decision to marry is no longer honored by the State may unfairly disturb their reliance interest, and upset their reasonable expectations.

At the very least, the possibility of a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment should leave California courts (which will interpret the CMPA) inclined to read it narrowly and to deny it any retroactive effect. Such a narrow reading will avoid the need to resolve the federal constitutional problems with retroactive application, and courts often say that avoiding questions like those by reading state law narrowly is a good thing – since courts should not decide important constitutional questions unless reaching such questions is absolutely necessary.

What Are the Chances that a Federal Constitutional Right to Same-Sex Marriage Will Be Found?

Finally, what, if anything, does last week's ruling tell us about a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage? Many commentators will say, "Nothing at all," because the meaning of the federal Constitution is distinct from the meaning of state constitutions. It is true that federal law and state law have separate lives. But it is also true that they often influence each other.

It is very common for state courts to interpret their state constitutions to mean exactly what the federal Constitution means. Granted, it is less common for federal courts to look to state law to determine what the federal Constitution means (as the Supreme Court made clear in its ruling earlier this term in Virginia v. Moore, by rejecting the incorporation of state law into the meaning of "unreasonable" searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment). However, and importantly, there are a few areas where the meaning of state law does help determine the meaning of the federal Constitution.

One such area is so-called "cruel and unusual" punishment under the Eighth Amendment. There, what counts as "cruel and unusual" under the federal Constitution depends on what states are doing and not doing.

Another area, at least for many Supreme Court Justices, is substantive due process. What counts as a federally-protected "fundamental right" depends on what states have done, and what they are continuing to do. While Massachusetts and California are still the outliers in the national gay-marriage picture, those two States do comprise almost one seventh of the American people. And it won't take many more (populous) states following their lead to create a trend that might count in the eyes of Justice Anthony Kennedy and the other key Justices whose views on the meaning of fundamental federal rights dictate outcomes in the Supreme Court.

Vikram David Amar is a professor of law at the University of California, Davis School of Law. He is a 1988 graduate of the Yale Law School, and a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun. He is a co-author, along with William Cohen and Jonathan Varat, of a major constitutional law casebook, and a co-author of several volumes of the Wright & Miller treatise on federal practice and procedure. Before teaching, Professor Amar spent a few years at the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


As the presidential race continually heats up, citizens make decisions about how they will be involved in campaigns or promoting their favorite candidate. But which candidate will make citizen participation more accessible to all? This article focuses on how Obama uses the internet as a mode of communication with voters and gives an interesting history of how previous presidents have used the latest technology of their time to spread their message. Will Obama's use of the internet be as successful as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's use of the radio? And how can the internet create a two-way mode of communication between the central government and constituents? Consider these questions while reading the following piece. -Editor


How would Obama’s success in online campaigning translate into governing?

by Marc Ambinder

Source: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/ambinder-obama

America’s politics have regularly been transformed by sudden changes in the way we communicate. And revolutions in communications technology have always bestowed great gifts on those politicians savvy enough to grasp their full potential. It is still unclear how far Barack Obama’s talent for online campaigning will take him. But it’s worth noting that some of the best-known presidents in U.S. history have stood at the vanguard of past communications revolutions—and that a few have used those revolutions not only to mobilize voters and reach the White House but also to consolidate power and change the direction of politics once they got there.

Improvements to the printing press helped Andrew Jackson form and organize the Democratic Party, and he courted newspaper editors and publishers, some of whom became members of his Cabinet, with a zeal then unknown among political leaders. But the postal service, which was coming into its own as he reached for the presidency, was perhaps even more important to his election and public image. Jackson’s exploits in the War of 1812 became well known thanks in large measure to the distribution network that the postal service had created, and his 1828 campaign—among the first to distribute biographical pamphlets by mail—reinforced his heroic image. As president, he turned the office of postmaster into a patronage position, expanded the postal network further—the historian Richard John has pointed out that by the middle of Jackson’s first term, there were 2,000 more postal workers in America than soldiers in the Army—and used it to keep his populist base rallied behind him.

Abraham Lincoln became a national celebrity, according to the historian Allen Guelzo’s new book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, when transcripts of those debates were reprinted nationwide in newspapers, which were just then reaching critical mass in distribution beyond the few Eastern cities where they had previously flourished. Newspapers enabled Lincoln, an odd-looking man with a reed-thin voice, to become a viable national candidate; it might even be argued that the idea of a “union” worth fighting for was conceivable because newspapers also enabled increasingly far-flung citizens to stay apprised of far-off events, and to envision themselves as part of a greater whole.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt used radio to make his case for a dramatic redefinition of government itself, quickly mastering the informal tone best suited to the medium. In his fireside chats, Roosevelt reached directly into American living rooms at pivotal moments of his presidency. His talks—which by turns soothed, educated, and pressed for change—held the New Deal together.

And of course John F. Kennedy famously rode into the White House thanks in part to the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history, in which his keen sense of the medium’s visual impact, plus a little makeup, enabled him to fashion the look of a winner (especially when compared with a pale and haggard Richard Nixon). Kennedy used TV primarily to create and maintain his public image, not as a governing tool, but he understood its strengths and limitations before his peers did, and his election and popularity resulted partly from that understanding.

The communications revolution under way today involves the Internet, of course, and if Barack Obama eventually wins the presidency, it will be in no small part because he has understood the medium more fully than his opponents do. His speeches play well on YouTube, which allows for more than the five-second sound bites that have characterized the television era. And he recognizes the importance of transparency and consistency at a time when access to everything a politician has ever said is at the fingertips of every voter. But as Joshua Green notes in the preceding pages, Obama has truly set himself apart by his campaign’s use of the Internet to organize support. No other candidate in this or any other election has ever built a support network like Obama’s. The campaign’s 8,000 Web-based affinity groups, 750,000 active volunteers, and 1,276,000 donors have provided him with an enormous financial and organizational advantage in the Democratic primary.

Obama clearly intends to use the Web, if he is elected president, to transform governance just as he has transformed campaigning. Notably, he has spoken of conducting “online fireside chats” as president. And when one imagines how Obama’s political army, presumably intact, might be mobilized to lobby for major legislation with just a few keystrokes, it becomes possible, for a moment at least, to imagine that he might change the political culture of Washington simply by overwhelming it.

What Obama seems to promise is, at its outer limits, a participatory democracy in which the opportunities for participation have been radically expanded. He proposes creating a public, Google-like database of every federal dollar spent. He aims to post every piece of non-emergency legislation online for five days before he signs it so that Americans can comment. A White House blog—also with comments—would be a near certainty. Overseeing this new apparatus would be a chief technology officer.

There is some precedent for Obama’s vision. The British government has already used the Web to try to increase interaction with its citizenry, to limited effect. In November 2006, it established a Web site for citizens seeking redress from their government, http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/. More than 29,000 petitions have since been submitted, and about 9.5 percent of Britons have signed at least one of them. The petitions range from the class-conscious (“Order a independent report to identify reasons that the living conditions of working class people are poor in relation to higher classes”) to the parochial (“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to re-open sunderland ice rink”).

What does the government do with the petitions? It says it reads them and directs them, at its discretion, to the appropriate department; sometimes the department responds. Advocates of the system note that it enables the government to monitor public wants and attitudes in a way that opinion polling doesn’t.

Those in Obama’s campaign who think about technology and government see the U.K. site as merely a baby step—the first of many ways that Americans might interact with a President Obama. But the British example also helps show the limits of online participatory government. Communication and transparency are virtues only up to a point; as students of bureaucracies know, both eventually become an enemy to efficiency. Moreover, if an Obama presidency invited more input than it could reasonably weigh and respond to, it would quickly squander the networking capital that the campaign has built.

Today Obama is like a brand, his campaign like a $250 million company, and the voters like customers; the persuasion flows one way. If he becomes president, then power, authority, and legitimacy will flow in both directions; voters who are now keen to support the idea of Obama may push against his initiatives in office, sometimes unpredictably.

Indeed, in recent years the Web has without question generated and focused enough public pressure to force the hands of politicians on several occasions. So far, though, this pressure has been created spontaneously—and it has worked to the distinct disadvantage of the executive branch.

When President Bush nominated his longtime friend Harriet Miers to be a Supreme Court justice, wired conservative activists revolted. Minutes after the news broke, a blogger searched the federal campaign database and found that Miers had contributed to Democrats in the past, provoking a wave of questions about her ideological bona fides. In the space of a few hours, conservative outrage coalesced, and activists succeeded in throwing an unprepared White House and Republican National Committee off message; talk radio, the ether of the conservative movement, was filled with confusion, sown by angry e-mails and phone calls. I remember a senior GOP official asking me that night, “What the hell just happened?” It would take the RNC many hours to figure out that bloggers were generating the heat, and that bloggers had to be tended to first if the fire was to be put out.

More recently, the “netroots”—liberal Democrats organized online—have kept pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to avoid compromise with Republicans on national-security legislation the president calls critical. They’ve organized online petitions and sent e-mails to key staff members; they’ve raised money to air issue-advocacy ads. The Daily Kos Web site regularly asks its millions of readers to evaluate the performance of their congressional leaders, and, just as regularly, members of those leaders’ staffs check to see whether their bosses have had a good or a bad month. Top Democrats are relying more and more on netroots money to fund their political action committees, so these evaluations matter.

The lesson here seems obvious enough: technology has concentrated a fair amount of political power in hubs outside Washington. But Washington has not harnessed that power successfully.

If Obama wins, and if he can harness the Web as a unifying force once the voting is done, he could be a powerful president indeed—the kind that might even deliver on some of the audacious promises that Obama the candidate has made. But the Web, like the politics it seeks to transform, is unruly and fickle. The online networks that have turbocharged Obama’s candidacy could end up hemming him in, and even stalling his agenda, as president.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


This reflection inspires attendance at Town Meetings by remembering the history that created the reunions as a form of self-governance that remains to this day. Town Meetings are a meaningful way to participate and cooperate with neighbors and community members on issues that impact everyone. Toward the end of the article, Woodfin points out that sometimes individuals celebrate victory after a vote and other lament, but everyone continues to participate because it is their opportunity to voice their opinion on local issues. Another interesting opportunity to participate in areas where Town Meetings are not common practice or simply not established would be school board meetings and and public meetings regarding land use. When we are all able to find a forum where we can participate within our own communities, we will truly be making a real difference.

(Photo: The Old Town House, built in 1727, is often referred to as "Marblehead's Cradle of Liberty" for the many pre-revolutionary war meetings held there. It is one of the oldest town halls in America that has been in continuous use.)

In the documentary "An Unreasonable Man" about Ralph Nader, the presidential candidate reflects upon his own experiences in Town Meetings and recalls his father provoking him to come up with answers to the community's problems. These experiences and thought processes create a sense of civic responsibility that safeguards a sense of community and common well-being. Viewing the above-mentioned documentary is highly recommended for those hoping to change the world little by little, even when the battle is daunting and seemingly impossible. -Editor

Column: Open Town Meeting: Archaic, Unwieldy... and Irreplaceable

By William Woodfin
Wed Apr 30, 2008, 10:01 PM EDT


Marblehead - The calendar’s approach to May got me to thinking about our chosen form of government here in Marblehead: open, participative town meeting. Although I couldn’t find hard statistics on those of the Commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns that continue to practice the New England tradition of open town meeting, I feel secure in opining that this form of government is practiced by increasingly fewer communities as we approach the second decade of the 21st century.

The practice of the open-town-meeting form of government is an old one, its genesis coming in early 17th-century New England. Townspeople who were property owners gathered in meeting houses (the site of Marblehead’s original one was on Old Burial Hill) to make communal decisions related to payment for local services such as the constabulary and public schools, the appointment of local leaders, the defense of the community from physical attack and epidemic, and rules about topics as diverse as livestock grazing, fowling, the keeping of swine and the funding for the “poorhouse.”

Marblehead’s historic town’s records (the earliest of which are written by quill and ink in the glorious, flourished handwriting of the earliest town clerks) tell us that Marblehead has been conducting an annual open town meeting since 1629 or thereabouts — a prolonged record of almost 380 years of participative democracy in which we should take pride.

Like many things in small New England towns, town meeting is an “acquired taste,” which was often ingrained in childhood by parents who would retell over the supper table funny and often bawdy actions and words offered by Marbleheaders as part of this institution.

My earliest memories of Town Meeting come from my father Ben, who related his experiences as a child observing town meeting during the early 1930s. At that time, Marblehead’s town meeting was conducted in the upper auditorium of Abbot Hall, with hard wooden chairs and deacon benches arrayed on the main floor and the upper gallery reserved for observers and children alike to watch the verbal sparring. In his memory, these meetings were not for the “faint of heart,” as swearing during comments was commonplace, the grumbles of dissent with statements made by others from the floor was often loud and derisive, and the town generally betrayed her old Yankee roots that the opinions of “outsiders” and the Commonwealth shouldn’t have a hell of a lot to do with governing the actions of Marbleheaders and their beloved home town. According to my dad, the language of Marbleheaders at town meeting would often “peel the paint.” These meetings were as much about R-rated verbal barbs as effective governance, where “expletive deleted” words were used liberally. “What the hell do the laws of the Commonwealth have to do with Marblehead?” was the prevailing mantra of Marbleheaders. A liberal dose of “grog” before Town Meeting often was a common way to prepare for public speaking.

In my dad’s memory, Town Meeting was almost a hybrid of “a night at the Improv” (including swears) with Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Interestingly, in his experience (as well as my own), special derision was often reserved for elected officials, who, although they may have been elected annually by wide margins, were often derided by those who elected them as either “out of touch,” stupid or “from the shallow end of the gene pool.”

My first direct memory of Town Meeting was as a boy of about 13 when my father asked me to accompany him to observe the Town Meeting about the building of a new high school (around 1969). By this time, Town Meeting had been moved to the “real” high school auditorium (now the PAC at the Marblehead Veterans Middle School), where guests and kids needed to get a “ticket” from Town Clerk Clarence “Winker” Chapman and then be escorted by a police officer to sit on the stage to watch the debate.

Of course, when it comes to spending money, Marbleheaders have never been “blushing violets,” and the debate that night was long and contentious ultimately ending up with a close defeat of the proposed new high school. Incidentally, it would take almost 30 years before another new high school was proposed and eventually approved by Marblehead’s voters at the dawn of the 21st century — that is called institutional memory!

Over my years of attendance, I can remember a number of entertaining incidents, including Anthony “Tony” Fiore being chased around the auditorium by Marblehead’s finest (Harry Christensen the Senior, Herm Nickerson, Red Howe, et al) because he wouldn’t end his comments about dump regulations at the behest of the moderator; David Stern’s classic response to a voter’s question about the meaning of a zoning amendment about irregularly shaped lots (what this means is that “pork-chop lots are not kosher,” he said), and dissension about how a proposed granite breakwater across the harbor would ruin the view off “the Fort” and that which God didn’t put there should not be placed by man, regardless of damaged boats.

In the experience of my earliest years of attendance prior to 1980, Town Meeting was branded by the involvement of many elected and appointed officials who were always present and speaking (Jim Skinner, Tommy Jordan, Peter Martin, Norris Harris, Arnold Alexander, Donald Peach, Hill Rockett, Bill Conly, Joyce Maffei, Joe Whipple, Moderator Steve Howe, FinCom Chairman Bill Sleigh) along with regular attendees with a laudable sense of “citizenship” (talented and hesitant public speakers alike) who were accorded a modicum of respect and always had their say.

Over the past several years, I have heard various naysayers offer that open town meeting is archaic: unworkable in the complex regulatory environment that is Massachusetts, too much of a “pain” to attend and not truly representative because of attendance numbers typically in the 400-700 range (of 12,000-plus registered voters), the electorate is uninformed and disinterested or that the participatory town meeting is subject to “special interests” that show up, vote exclusively for their articles and leave.

To all that I say, “To hell I pitch it!” and “Bunk!” Sure, Town Meeting can and always has been a place that can be “packed,” and I also get upset when some people get up after their articles and walk out en masse (Katie bar the doors), but I also think of the times when I have walked up the aisle to the restroom (note: not enough PAC WCs; more next time) and seen and nodded to the same faces in the same seats, year after year, no matter the weather, the content of the warrant or the advancing years of age.

I also think of the way that a particularly effective argument, presentation or, yes, emotional genuflection to our town and her history has changed the course of the town’s business over the years: the 90-year-old lady (whose name escapes me) and former teacher who got up and gave the most eloquent speech and swayed an entire auditorium to her way of thinking and got a standing ovation to boot; the fact that if one has the “guts,” you can get up and say your piece whether popular or not and feel like your point of view has been voiced; that one person’s “special interest” is another’s democracy in situ; and, yes, that direct democracy still has a place in this increasingly complacent and jaundiced nation, where lobbyists wander the halls of Congress and the Legislature with impunity and checkbook in hand, elected officials often forget that they are supposed to be representatives of those in their district that elected them and that fundraising, media exposure, polls and slickness often define electability on a national scale.

To those who take the view that open town meeting is archaic, I ask, “Maybe, but what is better?” And, “Is there no place where responsible participatory citizenship should trump the siren call of new, streamlined governance?” I say, “Huzzah!” to Marblehead’s open town meeting and the scores of involved citizens that have historically made it work, and may God bless it and keep it for future generations.

It is with some sorrow and trepidation that I look back on the past year or so and see the score of Town Meeting “good citizens” that have passed: Virginia Gamage, Pat Warnock, Milt Bloom, Jim Hourihan, Paul Lausier, Lib McKinnon, Bud Orne and, yes, at the risk of sounding self-serving, my dad Ben and countless others who never said a word but, for decades and without fail, have shown up, taken their regular seats, voiced their opinions, rustled their FinCom reports, shifted their cheeks, raised their hands in assent or opposition and celebrated or grumbled on the outcome of votes but have always kept on attending. Among the named individuals there are few common threads of policy, spending or governance, but all had an abiding belief in town meeting and the participatory democracy that they cherished. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, but they ALWAYS attended and voiced what they thought was right for the town they loved. Not unlike Rockwell’s depiction of “freedom of speech” from his series of paintings entitled the “four freedoms” created at the onset of World War II, Marblehead’s open town meeting IS democracy and something we should never sacrifice to expediency or complacency.

Come May 5, 2008, I too would love to sit home and watch the finals of “American Idle” (oops, sorry, “Idol”), some other top-10 program or Paris’/LiLo’s/Britney’s latest calamity, but like my father before me, I will do my best to be at the PAC and hope that you also consider attending because you can become a legend of Marblehead’s open town meeting simply by attending.

Until next time, Marblehead forever, God bless this dear old town and don’t give up the ship….

Bill Woodfin is a selectman and Marbleheader who is in the process of writing a book and photographic retrospective entitled: “Marblehead: More Than Just a Place.”

Friday, May 23, 2008


The following article gives a great outline of the concept of Panarchy. The latest technology has enabled more participation and under some repressive governments it has even allowed for anonymous dissent. Technology in internet cafes can protect people as they would otherwise face consequences for commenting against the government. This article helps shed light on other aspects of Panarchy that can help us to better understand how participatory democracy looks in our times. -Editor

Paul Hartzog - Panarchy and the wikification of politics


Paul Hartzog introduces the concept of panarchy, a sociopolitical field that emerges when connective technologies, which lower the threshold for collective action, enable cooperative peer-to-peer production – of knowledge, of tools, of power.

Panarchy is the emerging system of sociopolitical activity that we might refer to as the “wiki-fication” of society. By “wikification,” I refer to the rise of mass participation systems, that include 1) software production, or “open source,” 2) knowledge production, e.g. wikipedia, or 3) group/identity production, e.g. communities. Mass participation is enabled by the recent spread of connective network technologies, from cell phones to the Internet. Panarchy emerges when these connective technologies, which lower the threshold for collective action, enable cooperative peer-to-peer production – of knowledge, of tools, of power.

Network technologies, because they increase human connectivity, increase both the speed and frequency of human interaction. But more connectivity also means more complexity, and therefore more unpredictability. As small events cascade into large ones, power becomes distributed throughout the system, at once everywhere and nowhere. The outcome of all of this is nothing less than the transformation of civilization. Where the current system is hierarchical, centralized, and differentiated, the new system is anarchical, diffuse, and overlapping. Where the current system marginalizes and represses difference, the new system generates difference in order to create, explore, and adapt to future possibilities and uncertainties. Where the current system reduces human labour to proprietary economic production, the new system consists of many modes of human labour and the production of open commons. And finally, where the current system institutionalizes static structures, the new system exhibits complex dynamics – it is a field whose elements and relations are continuously coalescing and dissolving, the whole field of which is called panarchy.

Power, knowledge, and democracy

Democracy is fundamentally about participation. Democratic theorists have long been aware of the complexities of participation. Who should participate? When? How? Network technologies emerged out of communities of participants who were deeply committed to democratic ideals of sharing and openness – basically hackers and hippies. Hackers and hippies are sharers, of everything from code to commons. Michel Foucault, deeply aware of the relationships between power and knowledge, expressed this open sharing attitude in his own work.

“If one or two of these ‘gadgets’ of approach or method that I’ve tried to employ with psychiatry, the penal system or natural history can be of service to you, then I shall be delighted. If you find the need to transform my tools or use others then show me what they are, because it may be of benefit to me.” (p. 65)

While it may seem odd to think of Foucault as a hacker, nevertheless his intuitions resonate with the hacker ethos which now permeates network culture. Yochai Benkler refers to these distributed systems as “commons-based peer production.” Networking technologies – TCP/IP, DNS, Usenet, the WWW, wikis, blogs, forums, mailing lists, podcasting, wearable computing, location-based technologies, and other forms of social software – all contribute to increased connectivity and participation in production. Consequently, we see also a resurgence in theories of “the commons.” Lawrence Lessig’s concern with the “fate of the commons,” David Bollier’s OnTheCommons website, as well as Ostrom and Hess’s recent book on “knowledge as commons.”

These networks challenge hierarchical power structures in both physical and digital realms. Saskia Sassen has identified global cities as one of the sites of interest, where informal, seemingly apolitical, movements emerge as phenomena worthy of further investigation. Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs also investigates the ease and rapidity of collective action enable by what he calls “technologies of cooperation.” Panarchy as a whole may be amorphous and polycentric, but some zones can be more concentrated, denser, than others. These are the zones where new forms of power emerge and contest existing powers. Hannah Arendt’s notion of power as something that exists wherever individuals come together for a common activity, is visible in these new zones of production, like wikipedia.

For, against, or away?

Ultimately, then, what can we do to more fully understand the panarchy which confronts us? Well, we can begin by looking to previous technologies that changed the sociopolitical structure. The printing press, and later the daguerreotype, created ripples of epistemological anxiety. That wikipedia benefits from dispersed collaboration is not really that surprising. Eisenstein notes the significant improvements in mapmaking after the advent of information-sharing and open practices, and the progress of science itself takes advantage of the same spirit (if not letter) of openness.

Nevertheless, traditional processes of validating and legitimating truth were suddenly challenged by the mere presence of a new alternative. What we have in wikipedia, and in wiki politics, is essentially the disruption of the author function. Production – of knowledge and politics – becomes diffuse and decentered, distributed throughout the system, disrupting previous spatial and temporal continuities. And just as the structural response to printing consisted of the emergence of the banned books index, so, too, the structural response to wikipedia has been slander and lawsuits. Foucault warned us about the conflicts that would arise under these conditions.

“There is a battle ‘for truth,’ or at least ‘around truth’ – it being understood once again that by truth I do not mean ‘the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted,’ but rather ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true,’ it being understood also that it’s not a matter of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays.” (p. 132)

Ernesto Laclau gives us a way to understand the homogeneity of the systemic response when he explains that the state-system cannot distinguish between potentially antisystemic social movements undertaken for particular purposes (e.g. peer production) vs. social movements that are anti-systemic in intent (i.e. revolutionary).

The crux of emergent formations under panarchy is that they take one of three forms. First, groups can mobilize on behalf of current structures. Second, they can mobilize in opposition to current structures. But more importantly, they can mobilize as “third way” alternatives that reject both the dominant and opposition structures, and instead operate in parallel to current structures.

So, although many writers about global networks note their anti-systemic roots, it is also true that movements like “open source” software and wikipedia are not primarily anti-systemic in their formation or motivations despite the obviously system-transforming capacity of their innovative mode of production. In many ways, the consequences of the new formations must be analyzed separately from their intentions. When new alternatives operate in parallel to existing modes, their consequences are often less clear, and may even be of little interest to the actual participants.


In order to properly theorize about panarchy, we need to understand in depth both the new technologies and their configurations as networks and complex systems, as well as political philosophy and social theory. With only the technical knowledge, we risk treating the effects of new technologies in a superficial way, simply applying traditional economic or nation-state lenses, without a full appreciation of the potential deeper social and political consequences of those technologies. Conversely, with only the philosophy, we risk focusing only on what we acknowledge in our traditional field of vision – nation-states, organized labour, and such – while entirely missing where the real action is, even though it is happening in plain sight, because we simply have not trained ourselves to see it.

The social formations enabled by connective technologies are the most important object of study in social and political philosophy at present. Moreover, these formations are not merely of interest only when they intersect with traditional nation-states or economic structures. Panarchy creates and reproduces a new socio-economic-political space (sometimes referred to as “global civil society”), and its movements are either resistant to or ambivalent with respect to traditional hierarchical institutions. As a result, panarchy manifests through mechanisms of social governance that function independently of and in parallel to state governing. As Paul Wapner points out:
“What is absolutely essential to recognize, however, is that it is not the entanglements and overlaps with states and the state system that make efforts in global civil society ‘political.’ Transnational activism does not simply become politically relevant when it intersects with state behavior…. At stake in this analysis, then, is the concept of world politics.” (p. 339)

What threatens to overwhelm us as theorists is the sheer multiplicity of this space. Whether we call it “heterarchy,” or “plurilateralism,” or “cosmopolitanism,” or “polycontexturality,” or “neo-medievalism,” or “mobius web governance,” or “p2p [peer-to-peer] society,” what is essential about this multitude is that it cannot be represented on an axis that presents us with a unified epistemological or political “we.” This is taken up, for example, in Hardt and Negri’s
Multitude, and Danilo Zolo’s critique Cosmopolis. All we get is flux; but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, it is a necessary thing: the resilience of complex systems is a function of their diversity. Though philosopher Mark Taylor is speaking of Foucault, Derrida, and postmodernists in general, he might just as well be referring to contemporary cosmopolitanists, when he remarks that what they “cannot imagine is a nontotalizing system or structure that nonetheless acts as a whole.” What self-organizing complex systems achieve is a balance between too much flexibility – therefore incoherence and a lack of identity – and too much rigidity – therefore a loss of adaptability that makes eventual collapse inevitable. The literature on complex systems and self-organization therefore provides another valuable analytical lens on panarchy.

In conclusion, in Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia, Ron Deibert suggests that:
“The heterogeneous nature of postmodern social epistemology, and the overlapping layers of political authority, not to mention the dispersed centers of surveillance themselves, would all act as strong constraints against the emergence of a single mass identity. It is more likely that this sense of a global imagined community would coexist in a complex montage of overlapping and fluid multiple identities.”

Herein, we have some things to fear – the rise of criminal networks and “netwar” – but also much to celebrate. We are not adrift; “no center” is not the same as “many centers.” With mobility, comes liberty, and with liberty, responsibilities. So, while some might find this realm of complex networks, unpredictability, and perpetual flux disconcerting or even dangerous, panarchy also offers the most exciting challenges and theoretical opportunities for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


In the following post, one of our editors recaps a months worth of extremely active political participation. Not only is it uplifting to see an individual so driven and motivated to be a positive force in society and have a strong voice in government and policy decisions by whatever means are available, it also brings to mind that the primary essential ingredient for a functioning participatory democracy is an informed, active, and inspired citizenry. Individual political activism is at the heart of any participatory democracy. Unfortunately when the system does not allow for individual voices to be heard and carry weight within the governing political system itself, individuals are forced to participate through channels outside of government in a struggle to achieve real political power and democracy. By contrast, a direct and participatory democracy would allow every individual an equal say in the creation of legislation, policy, and budgetary allocations. As equal partners in their own government, politically empowered citizens will be naturally motivated to be individual activists and participate in the political process. - Editor

My Month of Participation

My month of solid participation began just like any other month by reading the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and drinking coffee in my studio apartment on Capitol Hill. Walking to class at Seattle University, I could hardly glean the impact that the coming month would have on my level of motivation and inspiration to create change. During the coming month I would come to question my reasons behind participating in Socialist Alternative where socialist revolution was the constant question at hand, while I also would become more involved in the immigrant rights struggle and try to specifically address roots of migration in Latin America, my main region of study.

On April 1 I finished work at Spruce Street School where I teach in the after school program, and returned to campus to chair a public meeting about Bolivia's social movements and the leftist trends in Latin America. A whopping 70 people turned out to this Socialist Alternative event and most walked away feeling inspired by the courage and determination of Bolivians struggling to free their country from capitalist privatization. But one friend admitted that she felt cornered by members of Socialist Alternative who really wanted to sell her a newspaper, an opinion that helped me begin to define why I had begun to feel distanced from SA.

The following day I went to the Labor Temple, where most regional unions meet, to represent the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and learn from a well-informed panel about plans to revamp NAFTA and make it even worse for the workers. The discussion focused on what citizens can do to organize a response, such as write letters to representatives and participate in the May Day marches.

The next two days were filled with the "six-month planning session" for CISPES. The core group of activists for that organization planned the next 6 months of action and defined programs we will be carrying-out. Having a detailed plan helps us to stay organized and coordinated while activities like anti-oppression workshops help us understand how to participate without (un)intentionally violating any person's human rights.

That weekend I also found out that the Border Patrol would be attending the career fair on campus to recruit students. A group of activists from many different groups got together and planned a demonstration. We educated each other about our rights to protest, we planned how to best convey our message of social justice (having learned from previous actions that some people don't understand why we would be opposed to the current immigration enforcement agencies), and we created petitions demanding that the border patrol never return to our school. Other activists from around the city (mostly socialists trying to sell newspapers to active students) joined us on the eighth for a march around campus and a stand off in front of the building where the career fair was taking place. A couple of representatives from our group entered the building and were essentially dismissed and ignored by the administration, but we felt good about demonstrating when people applauded our efforts in front of the video camera I used to document the action. We attempted to show that violent repression against the immigrant population is not only unjust, it is not a sustainable solution to the immigration problem. Families are torn apart or uprooted by structural problems in their own countries exacerbated by US policy and we must demonstrate this to people who believe that detaining or deporting immigrants is a solution. This action was an attempt to do so and we will continue participating in this way to get people to better understand the violations of human rights being committed in our very own communities.

Throughout the week I attended meetings about the roots of migration while staying caught-up on the planning processes for events that will be discussed later. On the 12th, I awoke to realize that I had overslept and missed my ride to Tacoma for the Workers' Assembly on Immigrant Rights, so I quickly dialed a friend who was also going. She referred me to the organizer of the event who then gave me the number of a friend who would be passing through my neighborhood en route to Tacoma. Although slightly hesitant at first to accept a ride from a stranger, driving to Tacoma with Juan proved to be a tremendous opportunity to gain some valuable insights. We chatted in Spanish about what it is like to come from a working class family and why we have to coordinate between students and workers in the struggle against oppressive capitalist forces. By the time we reached the conference, I didn't want to end the conversation, but upon entering I realized the power within the building. Some of the most dedicated revolutionaries and activists were speaking simultaneously in two languages - English and Spanish - in an effort to connect various groups of people and unite the struggles of workers in the region. Workshops focused on issues of racism in the workplace, educating undocumented workers the rights they have that ICE may not recognize, and how to continue participation (#1 suggestion: participate in May Day marches).

Although I was overwhelmingly inspired during my day of participation and my conversations with Juan, I have noticed that the various groups present that day and nodding their heads at speeches remain divided on trivial issues of history that keep the movement from coalescing and becoming bigger and better. For example I found myself trapped at one point. I had been a "member" (I paid dues) of Socialist Alternative (SA) for about nine months but I was also doing speaking engagements and planning events with the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) because I was interested in their issues (Venezuela and Cuba). A member of SWP approached me to discuss plans for an upcoming event when an SA member was trying to get my attention to talk. I called the SA member to join our conversation about the event because I had invited SA to discuss the book "Our History Is Still Being Written: Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution", released by Pathfinder Press (the main source of income and publicity for the SWP), especially because I knew it would provide a debate regarding Cuba. Immediately the two hardcore members of each parties stiffened up and seemed reluctant to engage in dialogue. As we discussed the event, it became apparent that both individuals wanted to end the conversation quickly without delving into topics of interest. I found it unfortunate that they were unwilling to engage in worthwhile conversation because of their political affiliations. Of course when the discussion came to pass later in the month, the two groups argued senselessly about their analysis of Cuban policy. Little divides like this are what create sectarianism.

I ended that day with a solid discussion with other SU student activists about our next steps after having learned so much about the workers' movement. Our ideas to bond with our University's workers were reaffirmed and we agreed to figure out our next actions ASAP.

The Green Festival was hosted on the 13th at the Convention Center (where the WTO meetings took place almost 10 years ago) and I went to see Amy Goodman speak. What an inspiring woman! She talked about the need to get or stay organized on a local level and encouraged activists to keep trying because you never know when an instance like the WTO protests is going to happen again. The spontaneity of important actions can make small actions seem less important, but they are not. Only through continually organizing will we eventually hit milestones in the struggle for a better world. On her birthday and in a packed auditorium, Amy Goodman inspired me to keep organizing and supporting independent media.

The following week was filled with work; volunteering is important but I gotta pay bills. Meanwhile the planning with CISPES continued and the previously discussed "Our History" took place without much of a ripple. The SWP invited all of their peeps and the handful of student groups involved brought a total of 15 students. A couple of professors from Seattle University spoke on a panel with the editor of the book and I moderated the evening by making a couple of neutral points that the book addresses. During the Q & A, students responded to the professors vague and antiquated analysis of Chinese migration to the Americas while the socialist groups debated the outcomes of the revolution. I was unimpressed by the triviality of the conversation. These are times when Cuba is transforming and there is a call for US citizens to readdress perspectives on Latin America. Continuing to focus on past differences seems to limit our abilities to generate positive and productive changes for the future.

My negative attitude didn't last long because the next day I was on a plane to DC for a conference about participatory democracy in Venezuela. Venezuela is my inspiration to stay involved and participate, so I couldn't wait to hear the good news about the revolution of my dreams. Let me also disclaim that I have read Jan Wong's book From Mao to Now and understand the dangers of a blind revolutionary, but I am still convinced that what Venezuela is doing as a country is generally the better than the systems that continue to confine us in the US. Yes, inequalities remain under Chavez, but the doors to participation have been opened and the weekend of the symposium renewed my passion for the Bolivarian ideals and exposed me once again to the drive of the people to create positive change in a nation state that is welcoming such improvement of daily life. I was impressed by the quality of speakers at the event considering the relatively small crowd of people that exemplifies dedication to the revolution. Please see our post at delaesquinacaliente.blogspot.com for a more detailed analysis of this event, there really is not room here to publish all that I learned.

Not only was the symposium amazing, I also made a great connection with a fellow activist from yet another socialist group - the International Socialist Organization. But whatever, this kid was cool. We shared a lot of ideas regarding sectarianism and he helped fill in some gaps that he had experienced during his own analysis of socialist politics, yet he still seemed determined to convince me that his group is the best and I really should read their literature and join their cause ASAP because they really are going to become the umbrella organization that will lead all others into the revolution (yeah brotha, you and the rest of the socialist groups!). At least he was able to show me a really cool book store that I would not have otherwise discovered where I bought a great book about how to build strong community organizations.

So I got back to Seattle and had some crazy last-minute stuff to throw together (like press releases in Spanish) for CISPES but in between working and attending classes I managed to meet with my favorite socialist revolutionary; Greg. Greg is an easy-going early thirty-something who has dedicated his academic prowess to reading and creating socialist literature while simultaneously teaching individuals in one on one sessions or in a group of three. He was the first to indoctrinate me with the gospel of socialism, so I easily agree with his analysis of everything. On this particular day, Greg listened to all the great stuff I learned at the symposium and suggested that we unite the movements behind CISPES and the Venezuela Solidarity groups through a workers' party. He gave me some literature and reaffirmed that I would agree with him as soon as I read the document. Ok, yeah a revolutionary workers' party would be great, but getting people to agree enough to create it seems like a stretch at the moment.

That week was all about planning for the CISPES events of the following week and preparing for the May Day march. I agreed to speak at the rally that the SU activist crowd was putting together and to be the emcee at the CISPES event, so I focused on creating clear speeches that would draw upon all the information about immigration and social movements that I had been learning about.

On the first of May I started the day rallying at Seattle Central Community College with other students and activists. From there we marched to the piers to meet up with the ILWU workers who closed the ports to protest the war in Iraq. The best part was when the group of workers mixed into the group of students and we all gave high-fives and cheers for our combined efforts. Then the Seattle U group and I bounced back up the hill via bus to host our own rally on campus. While it was small and somewhat disorganized, it was worth it to bring our group together to march together to Judkins Park where the Workers' Rights march was to begin. On our way, we walked by a huge construction site where I noticed the workers peering out at us. I used the bullhorn to give a shout-out to the crew and our group gave a solidarity cheer while the workers cheered down at us from the third story of a new condo complex.

Upon our arrival at Judkins Park I met up with the CISPES crew and we started the long march toward Seattle Center in a mass of 2,000 workers and activists. I met some new folks before jumping out of the crowd to set up for the CISPES party featuring the Georgetown Orbits and food I had helped to prepare the night before. Everything miraculously fell in to place and about 200 people came to learn about a water workers union that struggles against privatization in El Salvador and enjoy some amazing roots reggae. We raised plenty of money to send to SETA, the water workers union, and rocked the house. Attendants celebrated the marches and partied in solidarity to make bonds among individuals who are dedicated to various progressive causes. Such a fun atmosphere blurred the dividing lines between political groups, nationality, and race.

Even though I felt exhausted by the May Day marathon, the next event for CISPES demanded further participation and allowed me to make solid connections with an amazing group of activists. For months I had been working with three other people to plan the Solidarity Cycle from Seattle to Olympia via Tacoma with the intention of raising awareness about US intervention in Salvadoran elections and raising funds to help the people of El Salvador in their grassroots struggle for democracy. The cycle was a complete success even though we had smaller participation than anticipated. Each participant walked away with a better understanding of the issues facing Salvadorans and spending the weekend together brought us closer to each other. Conversations over meals and on the roads clarified our political stances and created connections with other groups in Tacoma and Olympia. Everyone was so supportive and helpful that I didn't want the weekend to end. But fortunately our solidarity is permanent and we are currently trying to plan a similar action with less time commitment to support the community of Pacific as raids plague public policy.

So the month came to an end, but my participation will not. I learned how to move beyond selling socialist newspapers to connect with other groups and communities. It is through action, education, and dialogue that we will continue in the struggle for a more participatory society that can improve democracy here in the US and abroad. Facing the issues together and educating others are tactics that I will continue to use as tools for participation.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Interesting analysis from an Oklahoma newspaper on the history and the current state of democracy in the U.S.A. - Editor

Democracy or Republic?

Think the U.S. is a true democracy? Actually, the founding fathers visualized a republic – and neither form of government has anything to do with party affiliation.

Source: http://www.tahlequahdailypress.com/homepage/local_story_086152904.html?keyword=leadpicturestory

By BETTY SMITH Press special writer

The ancient Greeks came up with the idea that the people should run the government. That legacy continues today in the United States and many other countries around the world.

But different countries vary on their interpretations of “democracy,” and wars have been fought over it.

Although most people probably didn’t know about it or think about it, Tuesday was National Celebration of Greek and American Democracy Day. There were no parades, no speeches, no politicians kissing babies. But when asked, some people did reflect on the meaning of democracy and how it functions in the U.S. today.

Democracy had its genesis in the city-state of Athens about 500 B.C. In that society, people – more precisely, men – made decisions together, rather than electing representatives to make those decisions on their behalf.

Obviously, that is not possible today in a country as large, well-populated and diverse as the U.S. The founding fathers created what they considered a “republic,” or federation of states, with the House of Representatives elected by the people and other federal officials appointed.

In case you’re wondering, none of this has anything to do with whether one is a registered “Republican” or “Democrat.”

The U.S. Department of State Web site defines democracy as “a government by the people in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.”

Or, as Abraham Lincoln termed it, a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

“Greece is the home of democracy,” said Dr. Justin Halpern, professor of political science at Northeastern State University. “The founding fathers [of the U.S.] were not especially keen on direct votes of the people. The founding fathers thought they were a republic, and they only provided for direct election of one house.”

The electoral college is a survivor of that philosophy – a survivor many people believe should go the way of the dinosaur, with the president instead being elected by popular vote.

And for a long time, people did not vote directly on senators, who were appointed by the states.

One also has to take into consideration that for much of America’s history, various groups were not allowed to vote. Women have been able to vote for less than a century. While blacks – the men, anyway – gained the right to vote after the Civil War, in actual practice, the poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures prevented them from casting ballots, especially in the South. And Native Americans were not granted full citizenship until the 20th century.

Halpern believes direct democracy is becoming more prevalent, especially on votes such as the state questions and local issues like sales taxes. And New England preserves the Greek style of direct democracy in its famous town meetings, he added.

He also has watched the evolution of the presidential election process. Candidates used to be selected in caucuses and in the infamous “smoke-filled rooms” where political bosses ruled.

“Now, more and more, they are selected in primaries,” he said.

Halpern believes continued development of the Internet will result in more direct democracy in the future.

Retired educator Fred Gibson, who has taught history and government and led public and foreign policy issue forums, sometimes fears for democracy.

“I think we have gone to great lengths to change the idea of democracy,” he said. “We have been more or less brainwashed to think of democracy as socialism, and we have a perverted knowledge of what capitalism is. It’s more a matter of license than it is freedom, for persons who have the advantage to succeed.”

Gibson pointed out Jesus Christ was concerned with the poor and with equality of people.

“He didn’t have that much respect for wealth,” Gibson said.

Gibson admires President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies to give people a hand up and out of the Depression through meaningful work programs.

He believes today’s society needs more programs to promote equality.

“We are getting away from what democracy means,” he said. “Democracy is where everybody has an equal opportunity for liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Department of State’s publication indicates that “freedom and democracy are often used interchangeably, but the two are not synonymous.”

It calls democracy the institutionalization of freedom. A direct democracy, where all people participate, is only possible where a small number of citizens are involved, such as in the New England town meetings.

In larger groups, people elect their representatives to vote on issues – whether it be a church board, club officers, or something as large as the federal government.

While the general concept of a democracy is that the majority rules, many contemporary societies also consider it important to protect the rights of the minorities.

Locally, people are often presented with the concept of two sovereign nations, such as the Cherokee Nation or the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees, dealing with the federal government.

The Department of State lists these principals as the pillars of democracy:

• Sovereignty of the people.
• Government based on consent of the governed.
• Majority rule.
• Minority rights.
• Guarantee of basic human rights.
• Free and fair elections.
• Equality before the law.
• Due process of law.
• Constitutional limits on government.
• Social, economic and political pluralism.
• Values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation and compromise

Friday, May 16, 2008


The following article from a Connecticut paper highlights another possible vehicle for expanding participatory democracy within local communities, that of the 'charrette.' - Editor

Towns Turn To 19th-Century Tradition Of Charrettes

By REGINE LABOSSIERE Courant Staff Writer
April 28, 2008


As "big box" stores and large developments build up in suburbia, local groups in the Farmington Valley are fed up with a land-use approval process that involves the public mostly in the final stages.

So, in a nod to a 19th-century tradition, residents increasingly are raising the idea of holding charrettes — open workshops involving all local stakeholders — to bring development discussions into the public arena much earlier in the process and taking control of the future of their communities.

The idea is gaining more appeal as area towns struggle with the need to decrease property taxes by bringing in economic development without inviting commercial sprawl. The issue was evident in Simsbury this month, when hundreds of residents expressed their opposition to a mixed-use zoning proposal that would have allowed a big-box store. Their outrage helped defeat the proposal.

"[A charrette is] more by the will of the people rather than something that is imposed by the government," said Justin Falango, a town planner with the Florida urban design firm Dover, Kohl & Partners. The firm conducts charrettes all over the world and has been consulting with Simsbury since last year.

The other appeal, Falango said, is the collaboration.

"Everyone gets to voice their concerns at the same time, and everything is worked through all at once," he said.

Falango, who has worked in Simsbury with Victor Dover, a partner in the Florida firm, said Simsbury is untouched by commercial sprawl development. He warns that if any zoning regulation allows a development in town that doesn't fit in with the character of Simsbury, then residents and town officials could see similar developments constructed.

"By having a charrette, it would affirm what they want the character to be and how they want the character to stay and it would help development," he said.

The word, which means "cart" in French, comes from the 1800s, when proctors at a Parisian art school circulated a cart to collect final drawings while students finished up their work, according to the National Charrette Institute in Portland, Ore. Nowadays, a charrette is an intense series of workshops where all stakeholders in a community — residents, business owners, developers, town officials — come together for at least several days and work with urban design planners and architects to discuss, research and produce a master plan detailing how a section of a municipality or the entire municipality should be developed. A set of drawings is produced each day of the charrette to convey the overall desire of the group.

Charrettes can cost between $75,000 and $500,000, depending on the size and location of what is being reviewed. The cost includes preparation, implementation and fees for the design firms involved and can be paid for by municipalities, grants and developers. Falango said many charrettes lead to zoning regulations or municipal ordinances that enforce the vision created.

Simsbury conducted what First Selectwoman Mary Glassman calls a mini-charrette 10 years ago that led to the town buying land in the town center and developing a performing arts center, bike paths and soccer fields. Now, Glassman said, Simsbury needs to conduct a full charrette that would lead to zoning regulations. Glassman said she knows the idea has support in town based on the turnout at a recent public hearing about the proposed mixed-used zoning regulation that eventually was voted down by the zoning commission.

"The fact that you had more than 500 people come out to a public hearing and comment on a land-use application is a strong message that the residents of Simsbury want to be involved in a public process to plan the development of Simsbury's future," she said.

Both developers and town officials in Connecticut and the rest of the country say that charrettes have helped their economic development strategy. Stephen Soler, president of Georgetown Land Development Co., sponsored a charrette in Redding that led to a zoning regulation change in the Georgetown neighborhood and paved the way for his redevelopment project, which will break ground this summer. He said the charrette was helpful in guiding his plans and navigating through the town's land use boards.

Hamden held a charrette in October that reviewed the city's three major corridors, State Street and Whitney and Dixwell avenues. Town Planner Leslie Creane said the charrette succeeded in getting ideas to improve those areas, and she expects new zoning regulations in Hamden in less than a year.

Mansfield is in the midst of developing a new downtown near the UConn campus. The town had a charrette and lots of public workshops in the past eight years that led to changes in its zoning regulations to allow for mixed-use development for the downtown project, which should break ground next year.

One North Carolina town believes in the public process so much that it has written into its zoning regulations that there must be a charrette for almost every development application submitted. Davidson, N.C., Planning Director Kris Krider said the process is necessary because Davidson is a small town of 9,100 and is issuing 250 building permits a year with an average of 2.5 occupants per unit.

"The growth rate is really high here, and it's about managing that and making the most of opportunity that development brings, and the charrette identifies what those opportunities are. It's usually a much better plan than the developer's," Krider said.

In Connecticut, Farmington Valley residents interested in having a charrette in their towns aren't looking for that extreme of a process, but they want the chance to help shape their town. "In Canton, we really have no vision for what we want the town to look like 20, 25 years from now, and I think the best way to see that vision is to have a charrette," said Tom Sevigny, president of the resident group Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion. "It's a direct democracy, people getting together and saying what they want the town to look like."

Several groups, including the local economic development agency, have met with Sevigny's group to promote the idea to town officials. Some boards and commissions see the idea as a good one, but one that is not now feasible.Canton First Selectman Dick Barlow said the town will have to redo its plan of conservation and development in the next two years, possibly with the help of state grants. He said a charrette could be included in that process.

Simsbury residents have said they'd like to see a charrette done in the northern and southern gateways, two areas where developments have been proposed, and the town center. But the board of selectmen recently said the project would be too expensive.

"As a compromise, we're certainly open to looking at doing [the town center], which is significantly less money, and using that process to help us develop mixed-use regulation for the other two sites," Glassman said.

"It's the only process, I'm convinced, that will get this town to move forward."

Contact Régine Labossière at rlabossiere@courant.com.

Monday, May 12, 2008


The following comments from an Indiana voter just before the recent historic primary election there illustrate how eager most americans are to participate actively in the democratic process provided that they are confident that their vote and their voice wields real power. However, the current power structure of our representative government strives at every opportunity to squelch the voice of the voters, thereby leaving them with the perception that they are impotent within their own (so called) democracy. This in turn generates the apathy among the populus that serves to perpetuate that undemocratic power structure. This 2008 election is inspiring in that it has seemingly broken that cycle more than any election in recent memory. Voters have a sense that their vote does matter this time, and can make a real difference. They are voting in record numbers, most notably on the Democratic side, and thanks in great part to the inspiration that the Obama campaign has generated. This momentum and increased democratic participation must not be squandered and forgotten on election day in November, but must instead be nourished and increased further by the next administration in Washington. The people's voice in government must be amplified, and real power to legislate and decide policy put in the hands of the populus. If we have any hope of achieving true democracy in this country, and of wrestling our future from the corrupt forces that have usurped our democracy for their own financial gain and pursuit of personal power, it will be through direct democracy allowing a government "of, for and by the people" to flourish. - Editor

Posted: May 6, 2008
By Sandy Sasso

There is a palpable excitement across Indiana on this Election Day. Finally, Hoosiers have been saying with evident pride, "We count! It's not just about New York and California. It is about us!"

While the Democratic Party may have wished for a less contentious contest, for an earlier resolution, Indiana residents are pleased to have been given, for once, a decisive voice. For the first time most of us can remember, our votes matter in a presidential primary. Candidates are listening, paying attention to local concerns from Gary to Evansville, Richmond to Terre Haute. And truth be told, it feels good. Polls indicate that more Hoosiers will be voting in this primary than in any other. As a consequence, state and local contests will benefit as well.

It is a sense of enfranchisement that makes for an involved citizenry. This year's renewed excitement in the democratic process speaks volumes for a revision of the primary system. Allowing for a less protracted and more equitable primary season would cost less money and engage more people. It might even reduce acrimony by requiring candidates to focus primarily on political, social and economic concerns and not on negative personal recriminations. Such an electoral process should allow for all states to feel equally empowered in each party's selection of its presidential nominee. The question on all of our minds is: Will the candidates still be attentive to Indiana's concerns tomorrow?

But perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from this year's political enthusiasm is the belief that our voices do matter, that individual citizens can make a difference, that democracy works best when we take seriously our responsibility to effect change, help to shape and influence the quality of our communities.

In the end, the substance and tone of a campaign are determined by our involvement and our indifference, by what we are willing to tolerate or what we are not, by our questions and our expectations. The quality of a campaign is shaped not only by what the candidates bring to the table, but what the electorate demands. In the end, good government isn't just about the decisions of leaders, but about an involved citizenry that holds officials accountable.

We are told that we are to think globally and to act locally. Even as we advocate for governmental action on global warming, let us be attentive to our own habits of wasteful consumerism and exploitation of natural resources. Even as we lobby for fair and just immigration legislation, let us treat our neighbors and the strangers in our midst with dignity and respect. Even as we call for health-care reform, let us promote healthy behaviors and wellness. Even as we require social and educational policies that are attentive to the most vulnerable among us, let us join in partnership with others who seek to raise the quality of life for all our neighborhoods.

In a participatory democracy government and communities, organizations and individuals work hand in hand. Private interest cannot be indifferent to the public good.

The key expectation for the new administration is for a sea of change, for sweeping waves of new directions. But real renewal is not only about making waves but about creating ripples. Each of us has a contribution to make. When one person throws a single pebble into a serene lake, it makes ripples that extend in all directions, far beyond the point of entry. As we move from May to November, may our new sense of enfranchisement in the democratic process move us to make both waves and ripples.

Sasso is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


This article from a small town paper in New York illustrates how the use of initiative and referendum puts the power of decision making and legislation in the hands of the people themselves and out of the hands of elected representatives who may have other motivations, such as those alleged by the union in this case. If the use initiative and referendum were more widespread at all levels of government, the resulting transfer of legislative power to the people themselves would create a much more democratic system, and sidestep the corruption and power politics than inevitably undermine sytems based on representative government. New York State does not currently have initiative and referendum a the state level. Although measures to introduce it have twice been passed in the State Senate in recent years and gone to the Assembly, it has as of yet failed to become law and be enacted. Hopefully it will soon be approved by the Assembly as well and then New York will join the many other states that enjoy this exercise of direct democracy in state governance. Initiative and referendum are however currently used at the village and town level in many municipalities in the state. - Editor

Greenwood Lakers Ready to Petition to Save DPW
Village Retaliating, Union Says

By Matt King
Times Herald-Record
April 15, 2008

Source: http://www.recordonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080415/NEWS/804150322

“My fellow DPW employees want to push for a villagewide referendum,” said Brian Moeller about the fate of Greenwood Lake DPW workers like Bobby Lewis, Brian Pral and Supervisor Bill Roe.

GREENWOOD LAKE — Employees angered over the plan to scrap the village's department of public works hope an exercise in direct democracy will stop it.

As soon as the proposed deal to hand over DPW duties to the Town of Warwick becomes official, employees will circulate a petition in the hopes voters will reject it at the ballot box.

"My fellow DPW employees want to push for a villagewide referendum," said mechanic Brian Moeller. "Let the people decide if this is the best thing to do."

The village is close to a deal with Warwick that Mayor Barbara Moore said is good for residents because it'll save about $200,000 a year and the town has more and better equipment.

"This is a very efficient move for village residents," Moore said, comparing it to Greenwood Lake's water department, which is run by a private company. "If I could get a rate I thought was sensible to privatize DPW, it would be the smart thing to do."

Warwick Supervisor Michael Sweeton has said each of the seven department employees will get an interview with the town, but not a promise of a job.

Meanwhile, more than 200 residents have signed a petition urging Moore to reconsider. It's being circulated by Donna Garley, a village employee, though not of the public works department.

"A few dollars a week per household is not worth five guys losing their jobs," Garley said. "You can't even buy a gallon of milk with that and you're going to put men out of work?"

A separate petition is required to place a referendum on the ballot. It can't be circulated until after the deal is official and must be signed by registered voters equal to at least 10 percent of the people who voted for governor in 2006, or roughly 100 signatures.

Scrapping the department has been discussed for years, but the timing of the deal — just two weeks after village employees signed cards saying they want representation from Teamsters Local 445 — inspired charges of retaliation by union officials.

Teamsters head Adrian Huff said the union has filed a complaint with New York Public Employment Relations Board, though computer problems kept the board from confirming the complaint yesterday.

The union alleges the deal is a punitive measure and the village is shirking its duty to recognize the union.

"They still have the right to representation, even as they're being laid off," Huff said.