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Public Democracy LA discusses the significance and need for citizens’ assemblies

Los Angeles City Hall is pictured. Public Democracy Los Angeles held a virtual meeting Tuesday to address the importance of making citizens’ assemblies in the city. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Taylor Wallace

Feb. 13, 2024 8:28 p.m.

Public Democracy Los Angeles, held a virtual meeting Tuesday to address the importance of making citizens’ assemblies in the city.

A citizen’s assembly works to represent the multicultural city of LA through a lottery-selected deliberation where residents take up the ability to decide policy recommendations for city problems, said Micheal Draskovic, a co-host of the event from Public Democracy LA, during the meeting.

“Yet our democracy still relies on outdated modes of governance, that privilege the wealthy and the well-connected, efforts to reform electoral politics alone aren’t enough,” Draskovic said. “We need to explore a new paradigm for democracy, one that brings more voices for more backgrounds together to deliberate, depolarize and resolve otherwise intractable issues.”

Ten different speakers spoke on the significance of citizen’s assemblies during the meeting.

The meeting’s purpose was to present the idea of implementing a citizen’s assembly in LA by 2026, giving backing to the idea by bringing on other advocates with experience in the field to speak, said Draskovic during the meeting.

“When we use the term citizens today, we mean it in its broadest sense, not one defined by mere documentation, but by sense of and connection to place,” Draskovic said during the meeting.

Draskovic said rather than the term “citizen,” a better fitting name could be chosen in the future to encompass all kinds of people in LA that both participate in and are represented by the assembly.

Citizens’ assemblies will be able to combat the structural barriers that obstruct solutions to the city’s issues, said Wayne Liebman, co-lead of Public Democracy LA, during the meeting.

“We have systemic underrepresentation, regulatory capture and very exclusionary public input,” Liebman said during the meeting. “These are all problems of governance that the system we have now is not solving.”

In city council meetings, the public can voice their concerns to members, but Public Democracy of LA is working for an additional and more numerous assembly of public voices because of the concerns they have about lack of representation when taking issues to the city council.

“As a way to democratize decision making, because 15 city council people for a city of 4 million is just not, it’s not okay, it’s not enough,” said Yvonne Yen Liu during the meeting, a representative of LA For All.

A limited number of councilmembers can’t handle or hear everyone’s concerns, said Rob Quan during the meeting, an organizer for Unrig LA, an organization working to dismantle the “corrupted system” of current politics. He added that sometimes members of the public are only given one minute to share their perspectives.

“Our politicians don’t even really pay attention sometimes. They’re on their phone or they’re having side conversations with another member or a staffer. They can actually auto-vote,” Quan said during the meeting.

As long as a politician does not cast a “No” vote, they are automatically put down as affirming, limiting their need for participation.

Citizens’ assemblies would address many of these unheard complaints by solving policy issues, making policy proposals or even discussing land use like the Petaluma Assembly did in 2022. The Petaluma Assembly, a citizen’s assembly that successfully helped to decide and implement a land-use decision.

“We expected a lot of political tension between the participants. I feared it would be like a town hall meeting with opposing sides shouting each other down,” said Dana Berman Duff during the meeting, a filmmaker who captured the assembly. “Just the opposite. I couldn’t believe my ears. After 10 plus days of working together, they talked as if they actually loved each other.”

In choosing individuals to serve in the assembly, community members will be selected from a representative range of ages, genders and ethnicities.

They are then chosen to participate to come to a rough consensus. This decision takes into account the multiple perspectives heard on an issue like policy solutions, after 40 to 100 hours of deliberation.

Panelists will be paid hourly stipends along with a reimbursement to cover travel or events that may impede attending like child or elder care. Technology like laptops and hotspots will also be provided along with translators. There will also be moderators to help groups have equal participation and productive engagement, said Kacey Bull during the meeting, a member of Healthy Democracy LA.

A two-year, three-phase plan to create their assembly in LA by 2026 was shown by Liebman during the meeting, including raising funds and gaining volunteers as their website encourages people to do.

“The process is designed so that panelists don’t need prior policy expertise to fully engage in the process,” Bull said during the meeting. “Folks are encouraged to draw on their lived experiences.”

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