The major concern expressed by local civic and community leaders at last Wednesday’s Westside LA Stakeholder Roundtable centered on a lack of public participation in government. The question: How to get more people involved at the grass-roots level.
Several participants at the gathering, held at Plummer Park in West Hollywood and co-sponsored by the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), worried about public apathy at many levels, from low voter turnout to lax parent participation in schools.
“The average citizen is not engaged,” said Betsy Johnson, co-president of the LA Westside NWPC chapter, which works to groom new leaders for public office. “You start talking policy and their eyes glaze over.”
Leaders from about a dozen public and private agencies represented an array of constituencies, from mental health and social services, to education, economic development and city government. Resoundingly, the group supported all five of the “smart government” proposals being developed by California Forward. The group was also unanimously optimistic that the reforms, if passed, would lead to greater equity of outcomes.
The group’s concern about public involvement was reflected in survey question. If reform proposals were adopted, how likely would it be that parents, business and civic leaders would collaborate to develop community strategies? Half the group thought it would be only “somewhat likely,” and 40 percent were even more pessimistic.
Robyn Ritter Simon, an empowerment speaker and past president of the NWPC chapter, said the agency endorsed a controversial move in Northern California to hold parents responsible for their truant children. “We talk about holding government agencies accountable,” she said. “There is also an accountability for being a human being and parent.”
California Forward Policy Director Richard Raya stressed that public participation would be an important part of the reform framework. “We realize that in order for this to work, it’s going to require people rolling up their sleeves, working together, and then monitoring how we are doing,” said Raya, who moderated the meeting. “They have to observe, analyze and be involved. And that’s democracy, actually.”
Among other issues, career educator Diane Wallace worried about the lack of training for local officials, such as elected school board members. NWPC’s Johnson said it was “disconcerting” to find that government agencies often “don’t talk to each other” and instead of collaboration there was competition between neighboring counties, such as LA and Ventura. Ritter Simon underscored concerns about voter apathy, noting how few people turned out the day before to vote in community college board elections.
“As a responsible parent and voter, we also need to stop making excuses,” she said. “We need to be responsible about who we’re voting for and take the time to find out how they’re going to vote on issues…Because you cant implement something like this (reform framework) with lazy, lousy leaders.”