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09.23.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
FED UP: County Tax Assessor Larry Stone believes the state's problems are so deep, a constitutional convention is necessary.

State of Emergency

Local leaders call town meeting to discuss the never-ending crisis in Sacramento

By Jessica Fromm


APPARENTLY, California has become so dysfunctional that folks from both sides of the aisle are willing to seriously discuss the concept of a full-scale state constitutional convention.

The topic of comprehensive statewide reform has become the buzz for Bay Area lawmakers and average citizens who are frustrated with the perpetual logjam in Sacramento.

On Wednesday, the American Leadership Forum—Silicon Valley (ALF) will host a "nontraditional" town hall meeting to discuss the what needs to be done to fix the state's big problems. The event has been branded "Realizing the California Dream," and will take place from 5:30 to 8pm in the San Jose City Hall Rotunda.

With no formal speakers, participants will be invited to chat in small group discussions about proposed reforms. On hand will be a bipartisan panel of local luminaries: County Tax Assessor and longtime Democratic political player Larry Stone; state Sen. Joe Simitian, another Democrat; Rick Callender, past president of the local NAACP,; former state Assemblymember Jim Cunneen, a Republican; and Democratic San Jose Councilmember Nora Campos.

Likely to be up for discussion are the sticking points Sacramento-watchers have been fussing about for decades: budget reform, the initiative process, Prop. 13, term limits and the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases.

Two camps have formed as to how state policy should be revamped. One camp believes that the state has sunk to such a level of failure that the only remedy is to go back to the drawing board with a full-scale California state constitutional convention.

Others see a convention as dangerous, and favor a step-by-step, systematic approach to addressing each area of reform individually.

Larry Stone, and longtime senior fellow in the ALF, is an outspoken advocate for the former position.

"I have some very strong feelings about the fact that this state is really screwed up in more ways then one. I'm one of those people who support a constitutional convention," says Stone, who cites partisan politics, campaign money, term limits and the initiative process as the state's biggest hurdles. "This state is dysfunctional, and we don't need incremental change. We need dramatic fundamental change in the way we do things. Big changes not small ones."


Voting for More Change

ALF is a nonprofit composed of business leaders, public officials and members of the faith community who aim to use "collaborative leadership skills to identify and deal with complex regional issues."

"We believe that broad-based involvement is crucial to the reform process," said ALF CEO Chris Block in a press release. "Every Californian's life will be affected by the decisions made in the next 18 months and people are hungry to be part of the conversation."

ALF members participating in tonight's meeting stand on both sides of the topic, but they all acknowledge change is needed, and it's needed fast.

With the November 2010 election coming up fast, convention proponents are hoping to get two major measures on the ballot. One would officially call a constitutional convention into action. The second would lay out its exact details, such as what issues would be on and off the table. For example: Would same-sex marriage or the right to abortion be up for grabs? That measure would also determine who the convention's delegates would be.

The issue of representation at a potential convention worries Callender, who says he is largely against the idea. In order for the designated delegates to accurately represent state demographics, it is possible that they would be chosen through a random process.

"I fear a constitutional convention, absolutely," Callender says. "I think we would be leaving many voices off the table. Desperation calls for drastic measures, and that's where we are now. I want a well thought out conversation ... so, when everything is finally said and done, it reflects the diversity of the population—from the diversity of people of color, to financial diversity."

Stone says that Callender's trepidation in understandable, but it shouldn't get in the way of a constitution rewrite.

"I think he's correct to be concerned about it. So I guess we should do nothing then, huh? So, we should leave it up to the people who have screwed this thing up for the last 20 years?"

"I understand the concern, but this state is so effed up. You need a major overhaul, and you need to take a risk. A constitutional convention is risky. But, the problem is so enormous, and the dysfunction is so great, that the risk I think is worth taking."

Sen. Joe Simitian acknowledges that there is a widespread sense that the state system is broken, but remains on the fence.

"My answer is: It depends," he says. "Right now, I think there are more questions then answers about a constitutional convention. But, I'm open to it. I'm certainly willing to go that far."

If comprehensive reform is to come to fruition, the two groups may need to come to a consensus on how the changes should be carried out, which is the tough part. Simitian says that ongoing discussions like Wednesday's ALF meeting are opening up the call for reform, taking people out of their ideological corners and showing them a common goal.

"There was tension between the two groups," Simitian says. "I think they have since come to realize that they are both working off fundamentally the same message, which is that we need to reform the system. And, that their efforts are really complimentary rather then competitive."

Simitian, Stone and Callender all reiterated the importance of getting the public informed on the impact these comprehensive reforms will have on every person in the state of California.

"You actually do hear many different discussions. At these forums, I've heard 'Constitutional convention!' I've heard 'Throw all those mothers out!" So, it really is a broad range," says Callender, who has attended several of these conversation-format ALF meetings.

"What I'm looking forward to is the involvement of everyone from a top down to a bottom up approach," he continued. "Everyone that lives in the state is affected by this. Hopefully there will be good participation that will lead to Silicon Valley having a loud voice when it comes to statewide reform."


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