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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Direct democracy at its best

For San Diego's North County Times

As the campaign season heats up for the 2012 elections, we hear candidates singing the same old song, "What the American people want is ..." Candidates seem confident we want our elected officials to follow, rather than lead us.

If Californians don't like what politicians do after they're elected, they can take matters into their own hands by recalls, initiatives and referendums. Ours is one of 24 states that allow votes by the people to throw the rascals out, overturn unpopular laws and create new ones. It's called "direct democracy."

California adopted it by constitutional amendment exactly one hundred years ago in an attempt to eliminate the bribery and corruption that ruled state politics at the time. On Oct. 8, 1911, two days before the measure was passed by the legislature, a New York Times editorial warned of its potential negative effects:

"The number, complexity, and minuteness of the propositions submitted to the popular vote make it physically impossible that the ordinary voter shall understand their nature and effect or the actual consequences of his own act."

Peter Schrag, a former editorial page writer for the Sacramento Bee, recently praised the prescience of that editorial. In the recent edition of BOOM: A Journal of California, Schrag wrote, "What was designed to be an exceptional remedy has come close to overwhelming representative democracy."

Citing several examples of how direct democracy doesn't work as promised, Schrag gave three important reasons for its failure:

1. It costs only $200 to file an initiative proposal, but volunteers alone can't bring it to the ballot. You need about $3 million to pay signature collectors, direct mail firms, consultants, pollsters and lawyers. The process is driven more by big money than by little guys with big ideas.

2. Rather than being subjected to the scrutiny of elected representatives, a proposition's fate is vulnerable to the rampant rumors of the blogosphere.

3. Successful propositions that don't allow for their own amendments can only be changed by another cumbersome and costly initiative process, even if serious problems turn up.

Direct democracy at its best comes to Oceanside in June, when residents will vote on whether to overturn the city council's decision to phase out rent control in the city's mobile-home parks. The referendum drive, conducted entirely by volunteers, produced 15,000 signatures, twice as many as required for the ballot and nearly four times the number of mobile-home park residents.

If rent control is phased out, the winners will be out-of-town park owners and the well-to-do. The losers will be Oceanside's most vulnerable residents: the elderly, retired military veterans and the disabled.

The city's values hang in the balance.

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