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Creative Californians Redefine Rahm’s ‘Rule One’

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Across the Golden State the relationship between government and citizens is changing for the better.

Within days of President Obama’s election in 2008, his pick for chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, uttered words that came to define the administration’s view of the burgeoning economic collapse: “Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.” Such “big things” were to come from the federal government in the forms of a massive stimulus package and a nationalized healthcare plan.

However, in California, as the crisis settles into a “new normal” of persistent double-digit unemployment and municipal governments teetering on the brink of insolvency, the state’s civic sector is responding by changing the relationship between government institutions and citizens. This new dynamic demands that Californians take a greater role not only in making tough policy decisions, but also in the actual delivery of public services.

Municipalities from Eureka to La Mesa are increasingly assuming the role of ‘convener’ when it comes to making difficult budget decisions, and asking the public to assume greater responsibilities.

Recently, Governor Brown signed AB 42 into law. The legislation, written by Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-Marin/Sonoma), passed overwhelmingly in both the Assembly (76-0) and the Senate (33-2) on the way to the governor’s desk. The new law cuts the red tape involved in forming working relationships between state parks and local supporters, in an attempt to keep open the 70 state parks the governor slated to close earlier this year. As Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, described the legislation, “Our state park system was created by the creativity and passion of dedicated citizen groups, and it is time for today’s generation of organizations to pick up the torch.”

Huffman explained his reason for proposing the measure: “Particularly in these tough economic times, creative public/private partnerships are an essential tool in providing ongoing protection of, and continued access to, these treasured public assets.”

One of those organizations with an imaginative approach is the Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma. The company’s founder, Tony Magee, is in negotiations with California State Parks to assume the maintenance of the local Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Magee believes that through volunteer staffing and a more creative marketing approach, he can “come pretty close to breaking even” on a budget that currently runs at $1 million annually.

Further creative solutions can be seen in nearby Jack London Historic Park, also designated for closure. Working with the Los Angeles-based Transcendence Theater Company, the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association is producing an “under the stars” concert to raise the money needed to keep Jack London and other area parks open.

Transcendence’s Amy Miller says, “The first time we walked into the gorgeous venue we knew it was the most remarkable space for a theatre.” If the fall shows prove popular, the theater company is looking at a full slate of productions in area state parks next summer—inspired new uses for park land.

The new law cuts the red tape involved in forming working relationships between state parks and local supporters, in an attempt to keep open the 70 state parks the governor slated to close earlier this year.

Turning from the state park to the ballpark, budget cuts at the University of California, Berkeley, forced Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to select for elimination the school’s century-old baseball program (along with several other sports teams) with its million-dollar annual budget. Saying that, “we have to try to be creative,” Cal baseball coach David Esquer immediately set about strategizing with players, fans, and alums to save the program.

What developed was more than a bunch of bake sales. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the plan involved “selling naming rights to the diamond, offering electronic game-day programs for smartphones, and even squaring off against major-league teams.” It was a new way of looking at a program which, in the past, had only raised $180,000 annually. As Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour noted, “I absolutely think that in this new financial reality for higher education, we will need to look more to philanthropy and business development.”

Within eight months, Esquer was able to present a 10-year strategic plan to the administration, which demonstrated full external funding. Chancellor Birgeneau removed the program from the “hit list,” and last summer the team had one of its most successful seasons ever, reaching the College World Series.

In collaboration with the National Conference on Citizenship, our recently released report, “Golden Governance: Building Effective Public Engagement in California,” highlights many more of these ingenious public solutions in response to the dire fiscal situation. Part case study, part guide, the report shows that municipalities from Eureka to La Mesa are increasingly assuming the role of “convener” when it comes to making difficult budget decisions, and asking the public to assume greater responsibilities.

While training hundreds of public officials throughout California in these new participatory leadership skills, it has become evident that, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “in this present crisis, government—particularly at the local levels—can be part of the solution when they engage their residents and civic organizations as partners,” and when Californians view ourselves not just as tax-paying “customers” but as problem solving citizens.

Pete Peterson is the executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy. The new report can be downloaded at GoldenGovernance.org.

FURTHER READING: Peterson also writes “Newspapers + Government: 2.0” and “Making a Federal(ist) Case Out of Civility.” Alex J. Pollock contributes “Municipal Debt Crises: Some Historical Perspective.” Andrew G. Biggs and Jason Richwine ask “Are California Public Employees Overpaid?” R. Richard Geddes authors “The Right Idea in the Wrong Place.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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