"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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Wednesday, June 4, 2008


The first piece in this post comes straight from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (D.O.N.E.) in Los Angeles homepage and it outlines the way they are trying to implement participatory democracy in the city. The rest of the website is certainly worth looking at as an example of how a well-oiled participatory democracy machine can run. Here is the link: http://www.lacityneighborhoods.com/about_us.htm
The second part of the post is an article we stumbled upon that highlights some of the challenges faced by these organizations and what is necessary to continue success. Although it is more in the context of one individual's personal experiences with D.O.N.E., there are some important points here to consider. -Editor


The vision of a citywide system of independent and influential neighborhood councils, and the creation of a city department to guide that process, was the centerpiece of the new City Charter that was approved by the voters in June 1999.

Mission Statement

To promote public participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs by creating, nurturing, and supporting a citywide system of grass-roots, independent, and participatory neighborhood councils.

The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment Pledge

1. We will treat the public with courtesy and respect.

2. When explaining a restriction, making a suggestion, or reporting a delay, we will always explain the reason why.

3. We will ensure that people who call during working hours will always have an opportunity to speak to someone.

4. We will avoid using insider or bureaucratic language.

5. We will be good listeners.

6. We will honor the Mayor’s “no wrong door” policy, and never use the words, “It’s not my job!” We will find out whose job it is.

7. We will never say, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” or “We tried it that way once but it didn’t work.”

8. We will keep the promises we make.

9. We believe that everyone deserves an answer.

10. We will strive to be the best friend that Neighborhood Councils have.
The Plan for a Citywide System of Neighborhood Councils (Plan)
Starting with a skeleton staff in 1999, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment held 16 public workshops throughout the city to begin teaching people about grass-roots participatory democracy, and to hear the public's needs, dreams, and suggestions. By the time the Plan for a Citywide System of Neighborhood Councils (Plan) was adopted, nearly 50 more public hearings had been held.

The Plan was approved on May 25, 2001 by the City Council through an ordinance. The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) and the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners reviewed years of extensive study regarding neighborhood councils, and received months of public comment before presenting a proposed plan to the Mayor and City Council in December, 2000. For six months, City Council committees received public comment on the proposed plan, and made revisions before submitting it to the Mayor for final approval in May, 2001. The Plan establishes a flexible framework through which people in neighborhoods may be empowered to create Neighborhood Councils to serve their needs. The Plan also sets minimum standards to ensure that Neighborhood Councils represent all stakeholders in the community, conduct fair and open meetings, and are financially accountable.

Neighborhood Councils are Forming Throughout the City of Los Angeles!
Neighborhood Councils are groups of people that, once certified by the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, will elect or select their own leaders, determine their own agendas, and set their own boundaries. The goal is to make them as independent as possible from government so that they will have the influence and power to affect citywide and local decision-making far beyond what neighborhood groups have done. People would be truly empowered to guide the futures of their neighborhoods.

Through the Early Notification System (ENS), Neighborhood Councils receive notice of issues and projects that are important to them as soon as possible. In this way, they will have a reasonable amount of time to understand, discuss, and develop positions before final decisions are made.

The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment began accepting applications from developing neighborhood councils that wish to become certified. The City expects that the applicants: know their proposed boundaries, conducted widespread outreach to their stakeholders, and created bylaws, an organizational structure, and a system for financial accountability. The department can tell you about activity in your area.

City Council Committee on Education and Neighborhoods
In August 2001, Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla created a new Committee on Education and Neighborhoods. The committee oversees issues that, among others, involve the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, Neighborhood Councils, civic participation, and community empowerment. In July 2005, the committee assignments changed. Councilmember Bill Rosendahl (District 11) is the chair. The person who will win the election in Council District 14 will be the vice-chair. Councilmember Janice Hahn (the former chair) is the third member.

Five Ways to Succeed as DONE’s New GM

Source: http://www.citywatchla.com/content/view/1224/

Being the permanent general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment isn’t a whole lot different from being the interim general manager.

The pay is the same. You can be fired at any moment for any reason. Your office is in the same place. The duties, responsibilities, and headaches are identical. Everyday you have to earn the respect of those with whom you work. But there is one less word in your title. As Bong Hwan Kim asks the City Council to shorten his title, he faces five significant challenges.

1) Help the neighborhood councils succeed before punishing them.

The Empowerment Academy, which provided educational classes into the community on a regular basis, has disappeared. We know little about what’s being planned for its reincarnation -- the Leadership Institute.

Neighborhood councils should be actively involved in design of the new educational effort, whatever it is called, and hopefully the neighborhood councils will be taught the skills they need to be successful before grumpy City Hall folks begin taking potshots at them for not living up to their unknown expectations.

Most importantly, DONE needs to teach present and future presidents how to be good neighborhood council leaders, and that means going beyond teaching people how to file Community Impact Statements, analyze zoning applications, or apply for grants. It’s not what you know, it’s how you lead.

2) Don’t try and make everyone happy.

Believe it or not, City Council members are not immune from coming up with stupid ideas. During a City Council meeting, one said he wanted me to edit and censor all neighborhood council newsletters. A couple of others told me privately that they wanted me to “take care of” a couple of neighborhood council presidents who were critics or potential political opponents.

After defining ones personal principles and goals, there will be times when a general manager just has to say no to people who aren’t used to being told no. Council members are used to asking general managers to help friends and smack down opponents.

3) Defend the system against the regulators.

The system demands that neighborhood councils be as independent as possible from City Hall, but there will always be someone, usually a planner or a neat-freak, who can’t accept the sloppiness that is participatory democracy. It’s a battle that was fought and won during the design of the system. Expect calls for all councils to have the same bylaws, select their directors the same way, run their meetings alike, so that democracy gets sacrificed for order.

4) Improve communications.

DONE’s general manager needs to be an unapologetic cheerleader for neighborhood councils and the cause of participatory democracy. The whole world is watching Los Angeles. The department’s newsletter and website should be used to keep people up-to-date on the important issues, and to alert them about important City Hall meetings. The accomplishments of neighborhood councils, which can be found in newspapers and from each council, need to be trumpeted from the highest point in the city. It costs nothing.

5) Improve morale, immediately.

DONE recently assessed itself using an online survey of staff and an analysis by a paid consultant. What jumped off the page was that 42% of the staff who took the survey refused to rate their immediate supervisor, and instead rated the interim general manager as a way of, in the words of staff, sending a direct message to him about how dissatisfied they were with his management. Many of the staff feared that the results of the survey would be suppressed and ignored.

This has created a situation in which many senior staff will be looking for ways to transfer out of the department, taking with them their knowledge and love for neighborhood councils.

(Greg Nelson participated in the birth and development of the LA Neighborhood Council system and most recently served as the General Manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. Nelson now provides news and issues analysis to CityWatch.) You can reach Greg Nelson at gregn213@cox.netThis email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it _

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