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Power to the People: A Look at California’s History of Civic Engagement

How Californians are getting directly involved in their own governance.

PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 1, 2021
Californians have a lengthy history of getting involved in the civic affairs that govern their daily lives.
Californians have a lengthy history of getting involved in the civic affairs that govern their daily lives. Pax Ahimsa Gethen / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 4.0 Share-Alike License

The history of California government is, in important ways, a history of citizens getting directly involved in their own governance. The state’s trend toward what is generally called civic engagement dates back at least to the early 20th century. With every arm of state and local government for decades in the grip of a domineering corporation that came to be known as “The Octopus”—the Southern Pacific Railroad company—voters in 1910 elected anti-corruption crusader Hiram Johnson as their new governor. 

Johnson quickly pushed through a set of reforms described as direct democracy, allowing voters themselves to bypass the then hopelessly corrupt state legislature and pass their own laws by ballot initiative, or to revoke laws passed by the legislature by voting on referendum questions. And of course, the third direct democracy reform under Johnson was the ability of voters to overturn election results by kicking elected officials out of office with recall votes.

The ability of California voters to exercise power over their elected officials through direct democracy is only one form, albeit an important and consequential one, of civic engagement. As a 2015 paper authored by the California Consortium on Public Engagement noted, the blanket term “civic engagement” can cover a wide variety of public-spirited activities, from speaking at city council meetings to joining a neighborhood watch group to coaching a Little League team. Any participation in a community activity can be called civic engagement.

But broadly speaking, civic engagement—as the Consortium defines it—can be broken into three main categories: voting, both for elected officeholders and on direct democracy measures; interaction with government, ranging from attending local council and commission open meetings to writing letters to state and federal representatives; and non-governmental engagement, that is, engagement with community issues and events through charities, churches, clubs, neighborhood groups and so on.

Why Do People Need to be ‘Engaged’ With Government?

Why is civic engagement important? The obvious answer is that the more citizens participate in their own governance, the less chance that government officials and legislative bodies can run amok, disregarding the public interest. But on a more practical level, with more than 200 state agencies and the numerous boards, commissions and departments within each one—as well as literally thousands of local government bodies under the individual jurisdictions of the state’s 58 counties, 482 cities and towns, and almost 3,000 special districts—government in California is complex, to say the least. The workings of the citizens’ own government can be almost totally opaque.

A higher level of civic engagement would, at least in theory, help citizens navigate the labyrinthine maze of state and local government operations, and have a chance of making the government work in their favor.

However, despite the state’s early journey into direct democracy, and the state’s highly voter-friendly election laws, California still has a long way to go when it comes to making civic engagement easier and more inviting for its residents. California in 1953 became one of the first states to pass an open-meeting law, in California’s case the Ralph M. Brown Act, mandating that meetings of local government committees, commissions and councils—any governmental policy-making body, for that matter—be open to the public, and open to spoken input from citizens who attend the meetings. The law also requires that governmental meetings be publicly announced at least 72 hours in advance, preventing local bodies from employing secrecy by surprise.

California’s Open Meeting Laws Need Reform

The law was the brainchild of Jack Craemer, who was the editor of the Modesto Independent Journal in 1952 and took the idea to Brown, a Modesto state assembly member. The real catalyst was a groundbreaking 10-part series titled “Your Secret Government” in the San Francisco Chronicle by reporter Michael A. Harris, who later became a city council member himself, in Sausalito.

It took another 14 years for the state to pass the Bagley-Keene Act, finally requiring state government bodies to play by the same type of open-meeting rules as their municipal and county counterparts. And another nine years after that for all 50 states to put open meeting laws of their own in place.

Together, the two California open meeting laws create what should be a welcoming environment for civic engagement in California, allowing citizens to monitor their public officials in action, and even speak to them face-to-face, giving direct, unfiltered access to the policy-making process. But perhaps unsurprisingly, things haven’t always worked out that way.

According to a report by Zócalo Public Square, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to fostering public engagement and exchange of ideas, the Brown Act has devolved over the years into a “gag rule,” the exact opposite of its original intention. In fact, the Zócalo report said that the law had now become “a civic Frankenstein, threatening the very public participation it was intended to protect.”

Public officials, according to the report, feel constrained from discussing important issues among themselves, to avoid even inadvertently violating the law’s strict prohibition against unannounced meetings. At the same time, time limits on public comments at open meetings—often just a few short minutes each—have the effect of suppressing substantive exchanges on issues between citizens and public officials, instead encouraging sound-bite size, often emotional outbursts.

Developers Gain an Outsize Voice

“By effectively prohibiting deeper exchanges among officials and citizens, the Brown Act has empowered professionals outside the civic space—lawyers, labor unions, and especially developers—to fill the conversation void,” wrote Zócalo columnist Joe Mathews.

Real estate developers in particular, Mathews wrote, have benefited from the law’s restrictions, gaining outsized input into public policy by becoming the conduits of choice for communication among officials attempting to skirt the law against closed-door discussions.

That eventuality was certainly not what Harris had in mind when he wrote the Brown Act’s preamble.

“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them,” the law says, in a passage penned by the Chronicle reporter. “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

The Bagley-Keene Act has also come under fire for constricting the very public discussion and debate it was designed to promote. In 2014, according to a Capitol Weekly report, members of the state’s powerful Public Utilities Commission testified to the Little Hoover Commission—an official state government watchdog body—that they were unable to conduct their oversight functions adequately due to restrictions on their internal discussions imposed by the Bagley-Keene law.

On the other hand, open government advocates were skeptical of the PUC’s complaint. First Amendment Coalition Executive Director Peter Scheer told Capitol Weekly at the time that he believed the PUC complaints to be “uniquely a problem with them,” and not an issue for other government commissions.

State Needs Better Civic Engagement Infrastructure

With a few exceptions, California’s local governments do not do much to actively facilitate civic engagement. 

“The people who run for office, vote, and participate in other ways (from attending public meetings to protesting) are whiter, richer and better educated than the state population as a whole,” Mathews wrote in a separate report for Zócalo. “And for all their talk of representing a democratic resistance, California’s leaders have been unwilling to take the essential first step to reversing those disparities: providing an infrastructure of support that will work directly with people to boost their civic knowledge and show them how to participate.”

The state’s largest city, Los Angeles, only created an actual Office of Civic Engagement in 2019, and even then the new office came under the auspices of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.  In other words, the department created to aid citizens in their effort to navigate the layers of bureaucracy in city government itself became another layer in that bureaucracy.

San Francisco, the state’s fourth-largest city, maintains a more robust Office of Civic Engagement, which doubles as the city’s Immigrant Affairs office, as well. Santa Rosa also maintains an Office of Community Engagement, whose mission is to “improve relationships between residents of Santa Rosa and the City of Santa Rosa.”

Even with the lack of municipal efforts to create an infrastructure for civic engagement, the 2015 report by the California Consortium on Public Engagement ended on an optimistic note.

“With the capacity to involve even hard-to-reach audiences; promote respectful yet difficult and sensitive conversations; and broaden definitions of what’s important, what must be done, and how it can be done,” the report stated, “civic engagement efforts will continue to grow and diversify in California.”

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