"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, October 1, 2008


The example in the following article from Grass Valley, California illustrates how direct democracy can have a huge impact by empowering voters to make their own decisions about the future direction of the communities in which they live. - Editor

Democracy, Managed Growth & You: Taking Responsibility for Grass Valley’s Future

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The citizens’ “Managed Growth Initiative” requires the City to follow its General Plan’s vision of how Grass Valley should grow. The Initiative and its proposals reflect a deeply democratic process. Abraham Lincoln eloquently propounded the democratic ideal at stake here: We are a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Correspondingly, California’s Constitution forthrightly declares: “All political power is inherent in the people.” [1] And: “The people have the right to instruct their representatives.”[2]

Requiring voter approval for changes to fundamental, constitutional guidance is common: amendments to both California’s Constitution and Grass Valley’s Charter must be approved by the electorate.[3] Significantly, California courts consider a general plan a community’s “constitution for future development,”[4] thereby specifying the relationship between a plan and zoning ordinances to implement it.

Similarly, the “Managed Growth Initiative” incorporates the current General Plan’s core – the Land Use Element and Map – into law, and requires the City’s zoning to be consistent with it. This is normal for un-chartered towns.[5] Further, amendments to that core (just six over the last nine years[6]) must be approved by Grass Valley’s voters.

Council-members find this awkward. At a May 27 presentation of the Initiative to the City, Councilman Miller opined: “The reason we have representative government, …is because the people elect representatives who share the same values and visions that they do, and so that’s why we sit up here, that’s why people place trust in us[7] – so you’re, basically, in this arena of City government, you want to make it a pure democracy, and you want it – rather – eliminate the representative government portion of it.”[8]

On the contrary, the American experiment relies on both representative and direct democracy to guide it. For example, in 1911, Republican Progressives introduced a swath of Constitutional Amendments consolidating popular sovereignty in reaction to the Railroads’ powerful and corrosive stranglehold on California’s representative democracy. Results included procedures of initiative, referendum and recall, permitting citizens to, among other things, directly propose and challenge legislative actions.[9] This provides an enduring corrective to concentrations of power, profits, and patronage that would corrupt Lincoln’s democratic ideal.

Why the “Managed Growth Initiative”? The proponents’ attorney replied to the city council, explaining: “An interesting aspect of [unchecked] representative government [permits] a handful of those who have the vast economic resources or political power, [to] influence those who are sitting in the positions where you are…. California expressly reserves the right of the voters to correct those types of abuses of power. That is what this initiative makes sure will happen with regard to the future of this city, that…changes to its general plan reflect the values of the people, not…of five people.”[10]

Importantly, Grass Valley’s Charter recognizes that: “The legislative power of the City of Grass Valley shall be vested in the people through the initiative and referendum and the council.”[11] In keeping with California’s Constitutional requirement, the City’s Charter explicitly states: “There are hereby reserved to the electors of the city the powers of the initiative and referendum and of the recall of municipal elective officers.”[12]

Although citizens can express their displeasure with elected officials by voting them out, four years can be a long wait. Furthermore, while recall is a valuable corrective, it demands huge energy and is very disruptive. Far simpler and more efficient is to craft clear rules that direct elected officials toward the community’s publicly established goals. Fundamental rules intended to express a community’s central values and aspirations are too important to be left to officials’ sole discretion or to their “flexible”[13] interpretation.

Yet, for several years the City has flirted with, even encouraged,[14] huge residential projects in the Special Development Areas that vastly exceed the growth anticipated by the General Plan.[15] Also, the City has consistently resisted wide-spread evidence – from public meetings[16] and polls[17] – showing that its citizens do not want rapid growth and big projects. Perversely, it ignores its -own study’s conclusion that the General Plan’s planned growth is more fiscally sound and sustainable than big developers’ proposals.[18] Self-interestedly, it opposes any attempt – even the Mayor’s developer-supported initiative[19] – to constrain its unfettered discretion to change or reinterpret the General Plan.

Clearly, representative stewardship in Grass Valley needs citizen oversight.[20]

The “Managed Growth Initiative” is simple and transparent. By incorporating the General Plan’s core into law, the City becomes legally bound to follow it. While the City will still develop and propose amendments, a generation of ballot-box scrutiny ensures that Grass Valley’s land-use governance really is of, by, and for the people: its citizens.

Howie Muir
Western Nevada County

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