"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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Monday, August 11, 2008


The following post is another in a series of articles we have posted about the evolution of the Neighborhood Council system in the city of Los Angeles. This experiment in participatory democracy seems typical of many in that at first it is often hard for those involved to shed the habits of past governing models and truly entrust the people with decision making power. This article rightfully calls for more popular involvement in overall policy decisions on the functioning of the councils. - Editor

Time for the Commission to Get Out of the Dark

By Greg Nelson


I’ve been making a mistake by stating that our neighborhood council system is based upon a belief by its founders that the goal is to encourage the spread of “participatory democracy.”

I have come to realize that this term leaves open an opportunity for a very broad interpretation by those who resist change in the culture of City Hall. The elitists who can’t bring themselves to accept that better decisions can result from the public’s involvement in government. It saddens me to read the policy that the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners enacted that describes how it will adopt policies.

The commission forms committees of its members that discuss specific issues in private, present them at a commission meeting, and give the public usually a couple of weeks to send in their written comments or trek to its meeting and speak for three minutes, which never occurs at the start of the meeting.

The flaws in this approach are that (1) it is “business as usual”, (2) it is critically important to be part of the drafting process, and (3) the comments, written or verbal, are routinely ignored. There is no exchange of information and ideas. The expertise of the neighborhood council members, which often exceeds that of commissioners, is shunned.

A more recent example occurred last week.

The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, the other agency created to lead the culture change, released a nine-page report on proposed and newly enacted changes to the Neighborhood Council Funding System. The report explained that there would be a 90-day public comment period.

This report and the process are laced with still more flaws.

Neighborhood councils and the public were not part of the drafting of the report. The collective wisdom of the councils could have nixed some bad ideas, noted that some proposed solutions were already in place, and suggested better answers.

But it is extremely difficult for neighborhood council members and the public to provide meaningful comments, regardless of the length of the public comment period, without being provided an explanation of the problem that everyone is trying to solve.

For instance, is it a systemic problem, or one of those far-to-common bureaucratic over-reactions to an isolated problem?

We know that the report was triggered by the fact that at least one neighborhood council president misused some of his council’s funds. We don’t know whether better oversight by those in charge should have caught the problem early on.

We aren’t told how the department will be able to provide the promised greater level of scrutiny when it admittedly doesn’t have enough people to properly monitor the program now, and when half of the program’s staff positions will soon be vacant during a time when the city’s hiring freeze may make it impossible to fill the vacancies.

More correctly, it needs to be said that our neighborhood council system is about promoting “deliberative democracy.”

When City Hall’s community planners hold public meetings with everyone sitting in a circle to discuss the reshaping of a community plan, they are all practicing a form of deliberative democracy. All views are respected, and value is added to the product that will be presented for a final decision.

When BONC and DONE design rules while shut away from the public, they are saying that they find little value in the public’s involvement. They are ignoring the core value that created them. And they are doing nothing to encourage other city agencies to embrace the deliberative democracy concept.

It’s not too late. During the next 90 days, town hall meetings could be held with interested neighborhood council leaders and treasurers. It all needs to begin with the DONE publicly defining the problem.

But it may not happen at all unless neighborhood councils stand up for the reason they were created.

(Greg Nelson participated in the birth and development of the LA Neighborhood Council system and 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 ◘

Vol 6 Issue 52
Pub: June 27, 2008

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