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Scandal, Bankruptcy. Then Citizen Participation

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Opinion: Scandal, Bankrupcy. Then Citizen Participation

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Robert Rizzo, former City of Bell Manager, appears in Los Angeles County Criminal Court, Sept. 22, 2010.

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California citizens have little power at the local level -- in large part because their local elected officials have little power. Most fiscal decisions can't be made in local governments -- because California's governing system has centralized power in Sacramento. Indeed, statistics show most Californians don't vote in municipal elections.

But there's one group of citizens who are receiving more power -- those who live in cities that have experienced scandal or bankruptcy.

In Vallejo, after bankruptcy, citizens are now being invited to participate in a participatory budgeting process. Citizens themselves will get to develop proposals for how to spend money from a sales tax measure -- and then vote on those proposals. This would make Vallejo a national leader in participatory budgeting.

In Bell, after scandals, citizens are being engaged in ways you rarely see in California cities. The city has organized, with the help of top professional facilitators, “Goal-Setting Community Forums” in which citizens work together to develop an approach to rebuilding the city's budget.

Other cities in California should be doing more of this. But there has been not nearly enough. Indeed, living in a city that has become a national embarassment seems to approve your odds of eventually living in a place that takes citizen engagement seriously.

Let's hope that these positive developments in Vallejo and Bell spread -- and that other cities can skip the scandal and the bankruptcy, and go right to the engagement.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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