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THE CITY IN 2013: CHARTING A NEW COURSE

     A couple of years back around the 4th of July, a Sacramento Bee article touted the virtues of voting and participating in government: it blasted Americans for a lack of civic engagement.  I agree that too many Americans foolishly ignore the privilege of voting, lazily observe what government is doing and blatantly fail to get involved.  But the article, like many people do, failed to address a very real and dangerous aspect of this predicament.  The problem is unofficial efforts to suppress citizen involvement and then minimizing their actions when they do engage in the political process.
     Governing officials use a variety of strategies to achieve outcomes they want and the concerns of the citizenry are often secondary thoughts.  Repeated experiences with a government that seems more of a foe than an institution “of the people” can weaken the resolve of even the most engaged citizens.  Coupled with this condition of adversarial government is an often twisted media with its own agenda and business motives; they masquerade as guardians of free speech and the people but play key roles in misinforming citizens about important policy issues.  Now, these news companies are controlled by fewer and fewer people.  Add to the mix the crippling impact of money into elections and it is no wonder so many citizens don’t think their voices matter and why so many give up on the political process.  In the end, disengaged taxpayers are just what our leaders want.  They want us to go away so they can act unchecked by meddling citizens.
     With two new council members, Allen Warren (District 2) and Steve Hansen (District 4), Sacramento can hope 2013 will be the start of something different.  Perhaps these new members will use their leadership positions to reshape our broken approach to addressing problems and change some attitudes about government, but I am not naïve.  Without a big push it is too easy for politicians to just settle for fitting in and running the same old game rather than setting a new course that truly engages citizens and truly embraces transparency.  For example, here are a couple of ideas for our council which can change our course.  These are not sexy or money-connected political items, but they are important to the nuts-and-bolts operation of our city.
     First, each council member should hold citizen/press conferences at city hall just like Mayor Johnson.  We should know what council members think about big city-wide issues like funding an arena, funding the police and how we create housing our young people can afford.  Council members hold the awesome power we grant them and they control our money, yet two-way communication cannot take place in the council chamber.  It is this lack of valid two-way communication that is undermining our democracy.  Our leaders talk about being candidates of transparency – well here is their chance.
     Second, as I announced at city hall on December 11, 2012, the council should create a police commission to help deal with an array of issues concerning the police department and very serious crime problems.  This is not an effort to beat up the police, but the vast power (life and death) and money we grant law enforcement demands a structure with accountability and which fosters two-way communication.  Moreover, a police commission can deal with (1) establishing a base number of police officers and finding a stable funding source; (2) work with citizens, the police chief and the police union to stay on the cutting edge of crime reduction and (3) examine methods of punishing criminals while possibly raising revenue.
     There are many issues to deal with in this city.  Business as usual cannot be the standard.  If we truly want citizens to participate in government, our leaders and the media must acknowledge both side of the problem – the cynical citizenry and the complicity of government and the media.
 

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