The Protecting Communities and Local Rights Amendment – A Not-So-Modest Proposal

John Mirisch
Councilmember and former three term mayor of Beverly Hills

Communities throughout California are under siege from Sacramento.

On a continual and ongoing basis, cities and counties are constantly playing defense, trying to battle a barrage of bad bills that Sacramento politicians would impose upon us, as if they know best how all of us throughout the state should live our lives.  In this world of Citizens United, it should hardly be any surprise that many of the very bills that are bad for us, the people, are great for the oligarchs and corporations who spread money around in Sacramento as if it were Halloween candy.

  • The telecom giants don’t want to have to have to deal with municipalities when it comes to placing unsightly electromagnetic cell phone equipment in the right of way.  So they get Sacramento to pass SB649 which would basically allow them free reign to put the equipment wherever they want (outside your bedroom window, for example).
  • The cable companies don’t want competition from municipalities which can provide their residents and businesses with better service, higher levels of connectivity and lower prices, so they shmear money around the capital to get their favorite Sacramento legislators to craft laws which would ban municipal fiber.
  • Developers hate having to comply with local zoning ordinances, they hate CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, and they hate having to negotiate with cities, all of which can limit their profits.  They make well-placed campaign donations to the right politicians and — voila! — we have Sacramento legislation which would use the housing crisis as an excuse to take away local zoning authority from cities.  Not surprisingly, its impact would not be to solve the housing crisis, but to destroy communities, while in the process creating the single largest wealth transfer in California history, from the public to private developers.  But, then again, that was the true intent of this bill, SB827, all along (as well as its goal of eliminating single-family housing, which its supporters claim is inherently “racist”).
  • The investor-owned utilities want to protect their monopolies, so they get Sacramento politicians to create obstacles for CCA’s, community choice aggregators, which give communities the option of using greener sources of energy.

And so on and so forth.  You name it, and there’s a well-funded special interest group trying to get Sacramento politicians to do its bidding, in all too many cases at the expense of local communities.

In other words, communities are constantly playing “Whack-A-Mole” trying to defeat bad bills, often crafted by corporate lobbyists and lawyers.  And in the big “Whack-A-Mole” game in Sacramento, it’s not even close to being a level playing field.  The corporations and oligarchs have all the time, leverage and money to look to the long game.  Communities and ordinary Californians, trying to live their daily lives and make their neighborhoods more livable, don’t really have a chance.

Perhaps legislators looking for special interest funding have too much time on their hands.  Perhaps one solution might be for California to adopt a part-time legislature, as has been done successfully in other states.

But the problem is even more extensive, more deep-rooted and more systemic than that; and it deserves a more wide-reaching and permanent solution.

Because even when enough grass-roots opposition does manage to whack a mole and kill a bad bill, we are constantly faced with zombie bills, which the special interests and lobbyists manage to consistently bring back from the dead.  It’s like a lingering, chronic virus which will never heal on its own.

We need to cure California’s broken system of government, which all too often seems to be a government of special interests, by special interests and for special interests.  It’s time for us to finally put people first.  It’s time for us to finally put communities first.  Our prescription is to amend the California state constitution to protect communities and to safeguard local rights against overreaching Sacramento politicians and the special interests who control them.

Local government, when done right, is the best and most democratic form of government, because it is closest to the people.  It’s the closest to home — and “home” is an almost sacred concept.  In our wide-ranging state, people deserve to have decisions affecting their daily lives made as close to home as possible.

Localism, subsidiarity and the right of decentralized self-government to reflect the diversity of aspirations, needs and choices of the unique communities that make up our dynamic state are principles which enable the best, most accountable and most responsive decision-making.  With the goal of best serving the residents of their respective communities, these principles deserve to be embedded in the California state constitution.

Subsidiarity is a concept which Jerry Brown has spoken about on numerous occasions.  It’s an organizing principle which mandates policy solutions at the lowest, smallest or least centralized competent authority.  In some cases that would be at the state level; but in more cases than not, decisions would and should be made at the regional, county, municipal or neighborhood levels.

Subsidiarity is, as Jerry Brown has said, a “clunky” word.  But it is a great principle for ensuring a vibrant, responsive democracy in a state as large and diverse as California.

To this end, Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand and I have started work on drafting the Protecting Communities and Local Rights Amendment to the California state constitution.  The amendment, much like the home rule provisions of the constitutions of other states, would formally recognize the centrality of the individual and diverse communities within our state, would encourage regional co-operation and would protect communities against the constant attacks from Sacramento politicians.

Local government is more accessible and more transparent than the state legislature; in Sacramento, politicians can take part in secret meetings and make backroom deals which are not permitted in local government.  Local governments also provide better and more extensive access to public records than Sacramento.  And local government is non-partisan and more issue-based than in Sacramento, where partisan – and often petty – politics rule, infused by an undercurrent of special interest money, greasing the halls of the State Capitol.

More often than not, wherever we may live in California, Sacramento is the problem, not the solution.  The solutions to our problems most often reside within our own local communities and through regional co-operation.

We need to stop having to play Sacramento “Whack-A-Mole” so we can instead focus on making our individual communities better, kinder, more sustainable and more livable places, in our own unique, community-based ways.

Perhaps the Sacramento politicians, lobbyists and special interest groups have unwittingly done us a favor by creating this tipping point.

Let’s take it from here.  Let’s make history.  Let’s fix California.

Subsidiarity’s the word…

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