Political Representation and the Public Airwaves

California has the worst per-capita representation for its state legislature, of any state in the United States. That’s one reason I’m running for Secretary of State, to change that.

The number of seats in the California state legislature was set in 1879 when our statewide population was approximately 865,000. Today it is almost 40 million, and more people live within a single State Senate District than lived in the entire state in 1879. Yet the number of seats – only 40 in the State Senate and 80 in the State Assembly – have never been increased.

A too-small legislature makes it difficult to reflect California’s rich diversity – political, social, economic, racial, ethnic and more — basic representation which should be the starting line for our democracy.

Having too few seats makes legislative districts very large and populous, making it very expensive to run for office, limiting who can get elected, and placing enormous legislative power in very few hands — all while giving disproportionate influence to those who can afford to fund our politicians, and/or have access to lobby them.

By contrast, a larger state legislature – especially combined with elections by proportional representation – would better represent California’s diversity, spread political power more widely, lower the cost to get elected and reduce the corrupting influence of big money in politics. 

Running for Secretary of State on this platform, how have I got this message out, and how does it relate to Santa Monica?

 

Using the public airwaves to campaign

As part of my campaign, I have been visiting city councils, county board of supervisors and other governmental agencies, presenting my plan to elect a 500 seat, unicameral state legislature by proportional representation. Speaking during public comment time on non-agendized items, I include how such a plan would empower local residents and their cities/counties, making it legally relevant for the agenda of that governmental agency.

Campaigning in this manner allows me to present my plan to public officials who are part of the existing power structure, as well as to reach politically active residents who attend city council meetings and/or watch them on local cable TV. These are among the types of people whose support will be necessary if we ever are to truly democratize our elections, by moving to elections by proportional representation.

Before I attend the meetings, I email the city/county clerk, asking them to broadcast a graphic of my plan in the council chambers (and presumably on their local cable TV) during my presentation.

Some cities broadcast the graphic as a matter of course – either electronically if you send them a file in advance, and/or via a hard copy using an in-chamber scanner. Other cities provide that option on agendized items – but not during public comment on non-agendized items, like I have been speaking on. Still, other cities don’t give the public that option on any agenda items at all.

 

The Public’s Right to View

Our local practice is on Tuesday’s City Council agenda as a consent calendar item (https://www.smgov.net/departments/clerk/agendas.aspx). City Staff – specifically the City Clerk’s office – is seeking to clarify and codify procedures for members of the public “to submit media files such as PowerPoint presentations, videos, audio, images, and portable document formats (PDFs) to be set up before and during their time for public comment.”

Staff has previously administratively accepted such media files until 6:30 p.m. on the day of City Council meetings. But as the number of requests has grown significantly over the last five to six years, issues have arisen protecting against computer viruses entering the City’s network, compatibility with the City’s software, and the sheer volume of submissions, all with the disruptions and dangers these can create.

It is reasonable to require an earlier submission time to address these issues. City Staff is recommending noon on the business day preceding a City Council meeting.

Of the cities that I went to speak to that allowed submitting media files, many accepted them on the day of the Council meeting, others on the day before. Recently I submitted a graphic to the Ventura County Clerk at midnight one night, and they had it ready for a Board of Supervisors meeting starting at 8:30 am the next morning.

There is likely a direct relationship with the volume of anticipated public input and the time necessary to process it, and Santa Monica is a more politically active community than most. But a noon deadline on the day before City Council meetings may be too stringent for a city that invites public participation, asking residents to be ready so early on a Monday workday on their volunteer time.

 

At a minimum allow use of the scanner

Perhaps of greater concern is the proposed codification of the existing ban on presenting media files during public comment, on items not on the agenda. The stated reason is that the Council cannot legally take any action on such items. “If something comes up during public input, direction can be given, and an item can be agendized for a future meeting. At that time, the public could submit a {visual} presentation as part of their comment.”

This misses the point about our democracy and our public airwaves. City Council meetings are not just about what the Council does. They are a public forum to discuss public policy. Just because there won’t be a binding decision on a given issue, doesn’t diminish the importance of public testimony about it.

For example, what happens when the public comes to speak on an extremely important, non-agendized item, and then no Councilmember asks that it be looked into by staff, and/or asks to agendize it for possible future action? Depending upon the issue, that lack of action could speak volumes – and have significant political implications.

Given that there are no technical barriers as long as the submission deadline is observed, what are we gaining from preventing such visual speech during such public presentations?

Santa Monica prides itself on local democracy and is rich in technical infrastructure. Banning such display of media files would put us behind the practice of many other cities.

Why give people the opportunity to speak with words and not images, when such speech is on their public airwaves, takes place in their public forum and is about their local government?

On Tuesday the Council should work with City Staff to determine the best deadline for submission of media files, but it should insist that such media files be allowed to be displayed during all opportunities for public comment.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004), a co-founder of the Green Party of California and a 2018 candidate for California Secretary of State.

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