Lawmakers promote 'citizens assembly' for California
Idea modeled on similar approach in British Columbia


By Lynda Gledhill
Published January 27th 2006 in San Francisco Chronicle

Sacramento -- A bipartisan pair of maverick lawmakers is proposing a "citizens assembly" that would have the power to draft radical changes to the state's electoral process and the Legislature.

Based on an idea tried in the Canadian province of British Columbia, the Citizens Assembly would draft average voters to serve for one year to come up with reforms that could include anything from creating a unicameral legislature, campaign finance reform or changing term limits.

"The Legislature has been very dysfunctional and in partisan gridlock," said Assemblyman Keith Richman, R-Northridge (Los Angeles County). "There is a long list of problems the Legislature has not addressed, and there is an inability to solve problems."

Richman teamed up with Pittsburg Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, a Democrat, to introduce a constitutional amendment that would create the Citizens Assembly. The two have worked together throughout their time in office to try to find bipartisan solutions to many of the state's problems.

They have had limited success, however, and are considered outsiders by their respective political parties. And Thursday's idea was not greeted warmly by Democrats, who control the Legislature.

"If voters want reform, they can make that decision at the ballot box every November," said Steven Maviglio, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles. "There is no need to spend millions of dollars to create other government entity with no proven track record."

Richman said they will consider moving an initiative to the ballot if the Legislature does not approve the measure.

The constitutional amendment earmarks $20 million to get the Citizens Assembly up and running. If two-thirds of both legislative houses approve the measure, voters would have to approve it in November for the panel to be activated. The governor does not have to sign off on the plan.

A group of academic advisers would help the secretary of state to draft a representative sample of Californians to participate. One hundred men and women from each Assembly district would be asked if they would be interested in becoming part of the group. From that subset, a man and a woman from each Assembly district would be selected to make up the Citizens Assembly.

The members would have to reflect the demographics of the state.

Participants -- who would be paid $1,000 plus travel expenses -- would meet twice a month for a year to come up with suggested reforms. Those reforms would then be voted on by Californians on the Nov. 2008 ballot.

Canciamilla and Richman said citizens will embrace the idea because they have lost faith in their government.

"The public is apathetic and cynical," Richman said, citing polls showing that more than 70 percent of Californians don't trust state government to solve problems. "We have two choices: One is to continue to work to reinvigorate and renew our democracy to make our representative democracy work, or the other choice is to be apathetic and cynical."

The Citizens Assembly is the perfect place for resolution of issues that lawmakers cannot or will not tackle, Richman said.

"The issues of electoral reform are issues that the Legislature and legislators have an inherent conflict of interest," he said.

The idea was well received in British Columbia, said Gordon Gibson, a former member of the legislature there and architect of the plan. Gibson said his province suffered from the same gridlock and lack of cooperation between political parties that California faces.

There, the Citizens Assembly recommended proportional voting, which would allow each political party to take a number of seats in the legislature based on how many votes they received in the election.

"If California chooses to adopt this process, this process works," he said. "It earned the deep respect and support of the people and media of British Columbia."

The recommendations of the Citizens Assembly in British Columbia failed to garner the necessary 60 percent approval of voters when it was placed on the ballot, but support for the process was so broad that lawmakers have agreed to put the measure before voters again, Gibson said.

E-mail Lynda Gledhill at lgledhill@sfchronicle.com.