Less than 18 percent of Los Angeles’ voters turned out in 2009 to elect the mayor of the country’s second largest city. In the 2011 election cycle, when there wasn’t a mayoral election, turnout was only 12 percent. Simply put, voter turnout in Los Angeles municipal elections is abysmal.

Yet, of any government entity, it is probably the L.A. Mayor and City Council who have the most visible and tangible day-to-day impact in Angelenos’ lives. An engaged electorate is the cornerstone of effective governance, and finding opportunities to improve L.A.’s voter engagement needs to be a focus. This is the focus of a new initiative that VICA is proud to be involved in, called Talking About Los Angeles (TALA).

TALA, which was announced this week, is the brainchild of a broad coalition of business, labor, education, nonprofit, civic and political leaders. Launching in February 2012, TALA is a series of conversations with the 2013 mayoral candidates about the issues that matter most to the future of our great city.

Under the leadership of the Southwest Voters Registration Education Project and Cerrell Associates, TALA is a unique opportunity for voters to engage with mayoral candidates in an open and honest dialogue—not debates with useless one-liners and cheap shots. With many of the major candidates already confirmed to participate, the TALA series promises to be a thorough exploration of all of the important issues to the city’s next mayor.

Each of the conversations will focus on an issue of importance to the future of LA, including transportation and infrastructure, the environment, quality of life, the economy, education and others. Each conversation will be moderated by a subject matter expert and will feature a mix of moderated and audience questions. Hosted at college campuses throughout the Los Angeles-basin, TALA is designed to engage young people and communities not typically involved in municipal elections.

Thanks to TALA’s presenting sponsor—Microsoft—there will be opportunities to involve Angelenos in the conversation in non-traditional ways. Through moderated blogs, interactive forums and other social media platforms, people will be able to pose questions and discuss critical issues with the candidates—providing an opportunity to focus on the geographic and community-specific issues that are often overlooked. All of this will be powered through a soon to be launched website, www.talkingaboutla.com, that will provide users the latest news, information and videos of the conversations and encourage them to weigh-in. TALA is a bold experiment in how we can engage the diverse population of L.A. in an ongoing conversation about the future of our city.

The 2013 mayoral race will likely be the most closely-watched and important election nationwide that year. On the heels of the 2012 presidential election, political observers will look to L.A. as a gauge for the rest of the country’s attitudes and opinions. However, on a more pragmatic level, the 2013 mayoral election will define how L.A. gets its economy back on track by attracting businesses, creating jobs and providing a quality education for our students.

VICA advocates for more than 370 small and large businesses in the San Fernando Valley. We know the challenges facing local businesses and our economy, and chief among them is civic apathy. We must have educated voters, who understand the issues and the role that local elected officials play in all of our lives. The education gap for L.A. voters is great, but TALA is a major step in the right direction.