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New group seeks impact on wide range of issues: Sprawl, constitutional reform among topics
By Brendan Kirby
January 6, 2003

FAIRHOPE -- After talking politics for most of the last year, a group of Baldwin citizens has decided to supplement its words with actions.

The new organization, Citizens for Responsible Government, aims to influence state and national policy on taxes, spending, growth, election reform and other issues. Edward Lawrence, who owns a small consulting firm in Fairhope, said the political discussion club he formed in February found it had reached consensus on a number of issues.

"We thought maybe instead of just talking about these things, maybe we should start being a little more activist," he said.

Lawrence said the group has between 15 and 20 members at this time from across the political spectrum -- from Republicans and Democrats to Greens and Libertarians. He said the organization encour ages new members.

Lawrence said the group has reached broad consensus on a half-dozen issues that it plans to tackle. They include:

Establishing a fair tax system at both the state and federal levels, with as few loopholes as possible.

Calling a constitutional con vention to rewrite the century-old governing blueprint.

Reducing wasteful "pork-barrel spending."

Creating a system of public financing for political campaigns.

Instituting an election system known as instant runoff voting in which voters would rank all of the candidates for office by order of preference.

Advocating "smart growth" policies to protect the environment and limit suburban sprawl.

Members of the group said they plan to write letters to the editor and sponsor issue forums on various issues to educate the public and attempt to build ground-level support for their ideas. They have a Web site at and said they want to sound out elected leaders.

Fairhope resident Harvey Joanning, who was elected the group's president, said he is unsure whether the group will endorse candidates. Joanning, who has lobbied legislatures in Texas and Iowa, described the organization as part think tank, part lobbyist.

"We're trying to do some of what a lobbyist would do without a partisan or financial agenda," he said.

The Web site contains position papers written by members of the group and links to Web sites of other reform groups. Lawrence, 60, said group members want to work with other organizations.

"We're not going to try to do what other groups are doing. But what we can do is assist these groups," he said.

Some of the club's goals, such as constitutional reform, are firmly on the agenda of reform organizations. Others, such as public financing of campaigns, have barely made a blip in Alabama. But they all welcomed whatever extra support they can get.

Kathryn Bowden, the executive director of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, said a dogged public education campaign over the last few years has convinced most people that the constitution robs local governments of meaning ful decision-making authorities and hamstrings other reform measures. She said she is glad to hear the Baldwin group has made changing the constitution a priority.

"I'm not surprised. I think we've done a good job getting our message out on the need for reform. Now, the debate is how we get there," she said. "Three years ago, nobody was talking about it. Now, everybody's talking about it."

Citizens of Responsible Government hopes to change the tenor of Alabama elections through the use of instant runoff voting. Under the system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. In a race in which no candidate gets a majority, the last-place choice is removed and his supporters' second choices are redistributed. The process continues until a candidate gets more than 50 percent.

Advocates contend such a system would save Alabama from having an extra runoff round of voting, which costs money and usually experiences lower turnout. And, he added, it would discourage negative campaigning since candidates would be competing to be the second choice of their competitors' supporters.

Edward Still, a Birmingham lawyer and board member of the Takoma Park, Md.-based Center for Voting and Democracy, said Alabama used a variation of the system in the early 20th century. It was nowhere to be found on a list of election reforms proposed by Secretary of State Jim Bennett, and Still suggested the effort probably would have to be launched from the grass roots.

"It hasn't been on the radar screen. We haven't gotten anybody else talking about it," he said. "When you got a bunch of leaky pipes, you don't think about adding on to the house."

Joanning, 55, said he taught psychology at the University of Iowa before retiring in Fairhope. He said his counseling will be helpful in mediating conflicting opinions and building consensus.

"We're trying very hard to make sure all views are heard," he said. "I know how to get disparate groups talking to one another without fighting."

Lawrence his group provides a place for folks who want an outlet for their political opinions.

"So much of the time, in a social setting, politics is an issue people want to avoid," he said.

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