Liberty…Bell?

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

“I just got too involved in my work and family to know what was going on,” said Maria, a retired LA County employee and 33-year local resident. While most of us could plead the same reasons for our own civic disengagement, if you live in Bell, California, as Maria does, the stakes ended up becoming […]

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On Further Review . . . Experts are Taking a Second Look at California’s Rail and Climate-Change Programs. Will Jerry Brown?

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

Crossposted on City Journal Recent reports on two high-profile California projects—a historic piece of climate-change legislation and the proposed construction of a statewide, high-speed rail line—are weakening Californians’ initial support for these measures. The studies have cast doubt on the viability of these multibillion-dollar undertakings, and public opinion is gradually shifting to more qualified support […]

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The End of California Progressivism

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

As
he struggled during an interview on KPCC to
defend his fellow Democrats’ recent assaults on California’s initiative
process, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Burbank, Glendale, Silver lake) blurted
out that the conversation with Republican Assemblyman Don Wagner (R – Irvine)
was becoming a "strange segment with a Republican sounding like a Democrat, and
a Democratic representative sounding like a Republican." The insinuation was
that the state’s Republicans have generally dismissed the public’s involvement
at the ballot box, while Democrats have upheld the virtues of initiative and
referendum.

Gatto’s
appraisal is disingenuous, of course: California Democrats have been remarkably consistent over the last several
years in their endeavors to curb participation in the initiative and referendum
system. Several of their current constraining efforts are warmed over ideas
from Democrats past.  I wrote recently on
these pages about
Democratic Senator Ellen Corbett’s attempt to restrict signature gathering to
hourly employees or volunteers – SB 168. 
This was the Democrats’ fourth bite at this apple,
with Corbett’s earlier attempt in 2010 (SB 34) falling to Governor
Schwarzenegger’s pen, then-Senator Debra Bowen’s (now Secretary of State) SB
1047 failing to make it out of committee in 2006, and then-Assemblyman Mark
Leno’s AB 2946 falling to veto that same year.

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SB 168: An Expensive Signature

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

Meet
Claudia McKinney: paid-by-the-hour signature gatherer in Washington state.
Ostensibly, Claudia is the kind of person, Sen. Ellen Corbett’s (D-San Leandro)
SB 168 is meant to
support here in California. A fair judge of human nature, Sen. Corbett believes
that the current "payment per signature" system in California (and most states)
incentivizes the submission of fraudulent signings. The claim is one of those
that makes sense, but is not backed up by national data.

Supported
by Secretary of State Debra Bowen and a number of unions, SB 168 sits on
Governor Brown’s desk awaiting his signature. Please Governor Brown, don’t sign
it. Or at least before you do, call up Washington’s Secretary of State, Sam
Reed, and your old buddy, Joe Trippi.

Just four months ago in Olympia, Washington,
McKinney, was convicted of "felony initiative fraud" and
ordered to serve 160 hours of community service and pay fines. Last fall,
McKinney – paid by the hour – was getting signatures for an income tax proposition,
which Washingtonians turned down at the ballot box in November.  After submitting her signature sheets,
elections officials quickly noticed that hundreds of signings were in the same
pen, in the same style. Investigations by Secretary Reed’s office and the
Washington State Patrol confirmed that McKinney had, in fact, submitted over
300 fraudulent signatures.

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The Hong Kong of Los Angeles County?

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

Cross-posted at CityJournal.

For decades, most Angelenos have known that something was not quite right in Vernon. A 5.2-square-mile city situated in the southern shadows of downtown Los Angeles, a scant few miles from the now infamous Southland cities of Bell and Maywood, Vernon is a company town—or, rather, a companies town. At last count, 1,800 businesses had operations in Vernon, employing over 55,000 people in mostly blue-collar jobs. Yet the city has just 97 residents. A larger, more engaged populace might possibly have prevented Vernon’s public officials from committing a shocking amount of malfeasance recently. The city manager, Bruce Malkenhorst, pleaded guilty in May to illegal use of public funds after investigators for the L.A. County district attorney found that he’d received more than $60,000 in city funds for personal use and was drawing the state’s highest pension (over $500,000 per year). Malkenhorst’s plea followed the 2009 conviction of Vernon’s mayor, Leonis Malburg, for voter fraud. Donal O’Callaghan, the city’s top administrator until mid-2010, was indicted in October for illegally putting his wife’s company on the city payroll. And the city council recently voted to continue receiving salaries of around $70,000 per member per year—nearly the highest in the state.

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Newspapers + Public Policy: 2.0

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

This is a shortened
version of an essay that appeared originally at
The
American
.

H. L. Mencken once said, "A newspaper is a device for making the
ignorant more ignorant, and the crazy crazier." The "Sage of Baltimore" knew whereof
he spoke, having infuriated many over four decades’ writing for the Baltimore Sun. From the invention of the
printing press to the advent of the web, the direction of communication from
writer to reader was essentially a one-way street. Now, the more creative
publishers are taking advantage of the Internet’s interactivity to develop
civic engagement tools that both educate and solicit the informed "voice" of
their readers. Because municipal governments have undertaken similar efforts,
relative strengths and weaknesses of government vs. newspaper-hosted online
engagement are emerging.

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Damned Lies, Statistics, and LA Times’ Headlines

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

In
the history of misleading newspaper headlines, it’s not exactly "Dewey Defeats Truman", but this weekend the Los Angeles Times put itself on the
medal stand. "Voters want tax plan to go on the ballot", blares the Times’ front page headline, supposedly describing the
results of the newspaper’s poll, co-sponsored by USC’s Dornsife College. The
headline of the story’s follow-through page proclaims, "State voters favor
taxes." Catching only these declarations at your Starbuck’s newsstand, or
casually flipping through the paper looking for news on Andrew Bynum’s knee
troubles, you may conclude that those radical partisans (usually those who hew
right-of-center) in Sacramento are preventing a moderate path through the
state’s fiscal disaster.

But
is this what the survey results actually shows?

The
headlines seem to rely on responses to a trio of survey questions. The first –
"To close the remaining $14 billion of the budget deficit, which approach do
you favor?" – reveals that while 33% of respondents supported "cutting spending"
only, a full 53% back a "combination of both" cuts and tax increases.  A paltry 9% of respondents supported a "taxes
only" plan to balance the budget. The first response has indeed diminished by
11 percentage points from the answers Californians gave last November.

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In Pleasantville, it’s Volunteers vs. Public Sector Unions

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

An earlier version of this
essay appeared in
City Journal
Online
.

Sometimes the local government staff I have the great pleasure of
working with say the darndest things. 
Prior to giving a speech on civic participation for a group of city and
county employees just north of San Francisco, I chatted with a county volunteer
coordinator about her job. "It sounds like fascinating work," I offered, "you
must interact with a lot of different people on a variety of projects."

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Sending out an SOS to our SoS

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

Debra Bowen’s term as California’s Secretary of State started with fanfare. Upon assuming office in 2007, Bowen was greeted with the task of approving the implementation of electronic voting machines throughout the state.

Over $400 million had been invested in the initiative, but the new Secretary of State took a step back and commissioned an independent study of the machines, uncovering several problems with the new technology. 

Confronting the machines’ manufacturer and unhappy county officials, Bowen decided to restrict implementation of the new voting system prior to the state’s February 5 presidential primary. It was a gutsy call, and for it, Bowen earned plaudits from around the state, and even nationally – receiving a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award at the Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.

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For Whom Does Bell Toll?

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

The story of $800,000.00 per year city officials and $100,000.00 per year elected officials in the small Los Angeles-area city of Bell has become news from California to China. While legitimate scorn has been heaped on these 6-figure "public servants", and both the Los Angeles County DA’s office as well as the Attorney General, Jerry Brown, have ordered investigations into possible illegalities, initial reviews of how things got so bad in Bell reveal an inconvenient truth: it’s the citizens’ fault.

As the head of the LA district attorney’s Public Integrity Division, David Demerjian recently told the Los Angeles Times,?"We deal with the crime. What people consider corruption may not be a crime. I tell them, ‘Any dysfunction within the government has to be handled by you.’ The residents have a lot of power."??

It was that great chronicler of the American democratic republic, Alexis De Tocqueville, who once noted, "in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve", but reading some of the reports and opinion pieces about the current fiasco, one is left to wonder whether this long-accepted axiom is still true. Within days of the Los Angeles Time’s cover story blowing the lid off of Bell’s City Hall, defenders arose to protect the civic virtue of its residents for reasons both self-serving and condescending.

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