"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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Tuesday, April 22, 2008


It is great that the people of Berkley are so active in their City Council and it seems that participation has helped them work through the "hot button" issues that have been up for debate. This article also points out some of the challenges facing those who want to participate, such as finding and using an adequate meeting space. It must be one that is accessible to all people and able to fit all the people that wish to take part.

Language is another question of participation that is not addressed in the following article. When people who speak and understand languages other than English wish to participate, it is necessary to provide interpretation. This is not as daunting a task as it seems because many people are bilingual or multilingual and for their own experience or desire to participate, they would be willing to help out. At grassroots conferences around the country this is evident, so it can surely carry on to the City Council level. Breaking down language barriers provides better understanding of other individuals and groups and is key to making successful participatory democracy. - Editor

Activist Group Recognized for City Council Policy Reform

Contributing WriterThursday, April 3, 2008

The Berkeley City Council has acquired a nationwide reputation for addressing hot-button issues, but some Berkeley residents say that until recently, they were restricted from speaking out during City Council meetings.

Last Friday, a local activist group was awarded for its role in improving the level of public participation during City Council meetings.

SuperBOLD, or Super Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense-a Berkeley citizens' rights advocate group, received the James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for its role in promoting public participation during City Council meetings.
The award "recognize(s) Bay Area organizations and individuals who have made significant contributions to the advancement of freedom of expression," according to its Web site.

Two years ago, SuperBOLD met with attorneys from the First Amendment Project, a non-profit law firm, to file letters against the City Council, threatening a lawsuit unless they changed their public speaking procedures during council meetings.

Before the City Council's reforms, ten members of the public were chosen by lottery to speak during council meetings. Those who lost the lottery were not allowed to speak, said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

Worthington said that the letters prompted the council to spend several months reforming the system. The current reforms were enacted earlier this year.

"Under the new system, even if you have one person waiting to speak, if they're patient, they'll have a chance to speak," he said.

According to SuperBOLD committee member Gene Bernardi, the award will help the group attain public awareness and support.

"It's giving us a lot more attention to the issue, and I think that will hopefully bring more people into the fold to help," she said.

Although she said she believes public participation has improved, Bernardi said that more help is needed to improve the City Council. She said that the city must increase the size of its council chambers to adequately involve the public during well-attended council meetings.

"Some people were standing in the cold and in the mud," she said. "It's not participatory democracy if you can't hear what's going on."

Worthington says the council chambers can hold roughly 100 people, and over 1,000 have attended council meetings before.

"I think (Bernardi) has a legitimate complaint," he said. "Most people can't sit in the audience and watch (the council meetings). I think council meetings should be moved to a wheelchair accessible space and a larger space, so that more people can be there and watch."

Worthington added that SuperBOLD is expected to attend a council meeting on April 22 to propose the "Sunshine Ordinance," which aims to make city information more easily accessible to the public.

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