Wednesday, October 14, 2009

California Constitutional Convention - No Politicians Please

Gavin Newsom, among others and including California Forward, are calling for a constitutional convention to rewrite, simplify, and change the way California government operates. In principle, this is a good idea and long overdue. The devil is in the details. For the past 20 years, California governors have been unable to govern and the legislature has been in effective deadlock. As a result of term limits, special interests dominate decision making. Gerrymandering legislative districts has insured highly partisan ideologies to dominate in public debate. State and local employees (prison guards and teachers in particular) diligently and rabidly protect their own at the expense of everyone else. Fiat by initiative funded by special interests or narrow political groups is the order of the day. In the face of this mess, all of it protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and the freedom to petition government, one wonders how a constitutional convention could possibly succeed.

Although the convention process is far from being decided or even outlined, it seems to me a few fundamental ground rules ought to be in place. First, no elected officials past or present should be part of the constitutional convention. There are plenty of really intelligent people in California not in politics who could be drafted as delegates. Politics should be as absent from the convention as possible. Second, every delegate should be trained in collaborative decision making, interest-based negotiation, conflict resolution, and fundamental principles of emotional intelligence. These classes should be mandatory to teach people the social and negotiation skills necessary to deal with sharply devisive issues. Third, the regions of the state should be represented by more than population size. Two thirds of California is rural and looks more like the midwest and, of course, is under represented in the political structure. The interior portions of California hold all of the natural resources, especially water, and therefore should have a pretty hefty say in the process. Fourth, there should be some advisory process in place to legally test constitutional provisions provisionally. Even if a constitutional convention creates a new document that is approved by the people and the legislature, it faces decades of challenges by interest groups unhappy with the inevitable loss of power, protection, and privilege.

I am sure that there are other fundamental procedures and ground rules that will be thought about and debated. I would like politicians like Mayor Newsom to elaborate on how they see the process developing and unfolding so we can judge whether their ideas of a convention make sense. The cry for a California constitutional convention will be come louder in the next year. Let's ask for details early and not let the process be decided in a cloakroom out of the public eye.

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