Today's date:
Winter 2012

A Voice for the Long-Term Public Interest

Nathan Gardels is the editor of “NPQ.”

In its recently released “Blueprint to Renew California,” the Think Long Committee for California proposed the establishment of an independent citizens watchdog and advocate for the public interest. This non-partisan Citizens Council for Government Accountability would ferret out waste and poor performance in state government while promoting the long-term priorities of the public: jobs, excellence in education, a clean environment, world-class infrastructure and the fiscal health of state finances.

In an era of rapid technological advance and the competitive pressures of globalization, there is little chance to achieve these goals without a determined strategic agenda such as the Council will pursue to move the state forward.

While the Council of 13 members would be appointed for six-year terms by the governor (nine members) and legislative leaders (four members) according to rules that would ensure its independence, any policies it might propose must be approved by the voters. Empowered to evaluate initiative proposals as well as place initiatives directly on the ballot on behalf of the public interest, the Council would short-circuit the influence of special interest money that has come to dominate the politics of propositions.

Working with the Little Hoover Commission and the California State Auditor, it would also possess subpoena power (which the Little Hoover Commission already has) to audit spending and review programs to make sure that taxpayers get what they are paying for.

To help ensure its constitutional integrity, the Council idea was formulated with the prudent advice of Ron George, who has been the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court for 15 years and is a member of the Think Long Committee. Since the Council would be an innovation in California’s unique mix of representative and direct democracy, it naturally raises some questions about what it would mean for how the state would be governed in the future.

Here are some key questions and answers about this important proposal:

Isn’t this the role of the legislature? | Because of their limited terms, legislators generally lack both the time and incentives either for devising a long-term agenda or for performance review of the policies they put in place, sunsetting of laws or follow through. Since they are only in office for a short period there is little accountability.

At one time, such a big-picture, long-term role belonged to the California Senate as an “upper house,” like the United States Senate, based on geographical instead of population representation. Since 1968, however, the Senate and the Assembly in California have duplicated each other’s role, with overlapping districts based on population.

Logically, at some point in the future, it might make sense to transform the two houses into a single legislative body with smaller districts so that representatives are closer to their constituents.

The whole point of the Council is to create an institutional counter-balance to the short-term, special interest political culture of Sacramento as well as to the necessarily narrow focus of legislators on the particular concerns of local constituencies.

Like the rest of the US, California needs a long-term strategic agenda if it is going to prosper in the decades ahead. Especially with term limits and short election cycles, the legislature does not have the capacity to fulfill this task.

To whom is the council accountable? | First, the Council is appointed by the state’s democratically elected officials. Second, what it might propose can go into effect only if approved by the public at the ballot box. Third, Council members can be removed for corruption or malfeasance by the Senate.

Some pundits have quipped that the Council was being granted “king’s power.” Others have called it “A House of Lords.” This is nonsense. What king, or hereditary nobility, ever had to go to the public at large in a general election to approve or reject his policies?

The Council meets the criteria of both legitimacy and accountability: Its members are selected by democratically elected representatives of the people and its proposals will be approved or rejected through the direct democracy of the initiative system.

In order to insulate the Council from the same short-term, special interest influences that result from electoral campaigns, the members of the Citizens Council will be appointed and not elected. While the Council’s legitimacy must necessarily derive from appointment by elected officials, Council members will be appointed in a way —with strict limitations on political contributions they can make to the appointing officials and with terms that cross electoral cycles—that ensures their independence and long-range perspective while avoiding the patronage, cronyism and partisanship that has immobilized state governance.

Does the council give the governor too much power? | The concern is that since the governor gets the majority of appointments the Council would do his bidding.

Remember, this is a structural proposal for governance that is meant to be in place for decades, not for one or another governor. The staggered six-year appointments across political cycles will mean a mix of different governors’ appointments over time, as is the case with the California Supreme Court, the Regents of the University of California, the Public Utilities Commission or the Coastal Commission.

The logic of giving the governor the most appointments is that, while the legislature represents specific constituencies, the governor represents the general will since he is directly elected by all the people and is thus best positioned to select Council members accordingly.

However, one way to remedy this concern is to follow the precedent of the appointment process for the Commission on Judicial Performance in Article 6 Section 8c of the California Constitution. This would allow for five of the Governor’s selections to be appointed for an initial two-year term and then be eligible for appointment to a full six-year term after that tenure. The other four members would be appointed to the full six-year terms. In this way, a staggered schedule would be set in place that gives future governors as well as the current governor a key role.

ISN’T THIS COUNCIL JUST ANOTHER LAYER OF BUREAUCRACY? | No. The Council is not an agency of bureaucrats but a body of citizens—paid on a per diem basis and bound by strict conflict-of-interest rules—charged with being a watchdog for the public interest. It is a quality-control body that will make sure the taxpaying public gets its “return on investment.”

Does the council undercut the intiative power of ordinary citizens? | On the contrary. It truly empowers them by being a non-partisan advocate for the long-term public interest.

It is misleading to argue that the initiative process as it exists today is a venue of recourse for the ordinary citizen. While historically the initiative process has played a key role in giving the public a direct voice in governance, the mounting costs of signature gathering and media have led to the process being captured by special interests and ideological causes pursuing short-term aims. It is these organized interests that have usurped the citizen’s power. The Council can recover that power for the citizens.

Unless we remove money from politics, the Council is the best option for California’s future because it will be an advocate for the public at the ballot box and a trusted guide for an electorate busy with family and work to sort through the thicket of spin and special interests that initiative campaigns have mostly become.

The Council may in fact be the public’s best safeguard of the initiative process itself.