"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, September 23, 2008


Another in a series of articles we have posted on the L.A. niegborhood councils and the evolution of the participatory governance they hope to bring to the City of Los Angeles. - Editor

Planning the Congress: A Different Perspective

By Guy Leemhuis

I have been involved in this wonderful experience in participatory democracy:-neighborhood councils for the past seven years.

I remember the first Congress of Neighborhoods. It was very exciting to have an opportunity to meet and network with fellow volunteer stakeholders with their hearts and minds focused on making a better Los Angeles and ensuring that the voice of its people was heard. The framework for the neighborhood council system is one from which Angelenos can draw pride.

However, the work it has taken, and continues to take, in making this bold experience a continuing reality takes, time, effort and assertiveness and a healthy dose of public relations skills.

It is no easy task soliciting input from 90 diverse neighborhood councils with a stakeholder base with even more diversity of perspectives. That may be why there is not one General Manager of Department of Neighborhood Empowerment that has had an easy time wrangling with how to ensure the Congress of Neighborhoods is neighborhood council driven.

Although many of us at various times over the past years have requested, or even demanded, more control in the planning of the Congress, there has always been controversy over the transparency of its planning and more importantly its purpose.

To date, there is not consensus among the 90 neighborhood councils on what the purpose of the Congress of Neighborhoods is. I certainly have given my input over the years and have not always been pleased with the result. However, I have learned that we must continue to remain at the table and bring forth ideas and work with the City, DONE and the Mayor's office if we are to yield a working solution.

Most of the good people within the neighborhood council system are talented, energetic, and hard working. They are also volunteers, many of whom have a day job or two. It is imperative that DONE play a significant role in assisting neighborhood councils in making Congress of Neighborhoods a reality.

I recently had the opportunity to partner in the planning and development of the first ever regional Congress of Neighborhoods which focused on issues in South Los Angeles. I found the process in working with DONE's new General Manager and staff to be one that was truly collaborative. They learned a lot from those of us from neighborhood councils.

I also realized that pulling off a successful Congress takes consistency of effort from beginning to end.

The feedback from neighborhood council members attending that event was that for many it was the best congress they have ever attended. I believe it was due to the fact that it was issue and outcome oriented. I hope that this will be something to replicate in other regions and city-wide congresses.

At the recent planning meeting for the city-wide Congress coming in October, much time and energy was spent by a few individuals giving some constructive feedback on planning of the Congress. Those in attendance were encouraged to react to a draft framework for the Congress. I did not feel like it was written in stone and I encourage folks to continue to give input.

Although I agree time and place was not decided by the group, I don't ever recall that being left to neighborhood councils before. In fact the Los Angeles Convention center has been used almost exclusively in prior years.

The biggest challenge was reaching consensus. A planning group was formed per the recommendations from the group that very night. Many folks liked the idea of tackling issues important to various regions throughout the city. Much of the agenda of the Congress has yet to be formed.

I hope that neighborhood council members will not boycott (as has been suggested) a process that quite frankly is currently ours to design in more ways than ever before. At the end of the day, the challenge is how do neighborhood councils work together and reach consensus on these important issues.

Empowerment of our communities is an awesome responsibility. I hope we can create positive energy to make this Congress and future ones something meaningful for all neighborhood councils. I plan to stay engaged in the process and hope others will do the same.

(Guy Leemhius is an attorney, neighborhood council activist and served on the NC Review Commission. Leemhius is an occasional contributor to CityWatch.) ◘

Vol 6 Issue 64
Pub: Aug 8, 2008

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