Gatto, whose district includes Glendale, Burbank, La Cañada Flintridge and Montrose, has launched the first-ever “Wiki Bill,” which lends the layperson a voice on the front-end of lawmaking.
Not unlike Wikipedia, residents can propose, draft and edit a bill which Gatto may then introduce into the state legislature next year.
“This is the first purely crowd-sourced piece of legislation in the United States,” Gatto said. “We have advocated for using technology as a tool for citizen engagement.”
The site, like Wikipedia, will be totally open for constant correction, Gatto said. If a special interest tries to game the system, Gatto said people will realize it and promptly correct any improprieties.
“We have the same checks and balances as Wikipedia itself. The whole idea is it’s designed to be self-policing,” Gatto said.
The first topic on his wiki agenda is probate law, which follows the shooting death of his father last month, but that is simply a coincidence, Gatto said.
“The idea was proposed months before my father’s passing,” Gatto said. “It is something that everyone goes through. We debated about changing course, but we decided to move forward with it.”
Some political experts say the idea could be good or bad, depending on Gatto’s motive.
“If Mike is simply trying to float something that expands the ability of the average citizen to weigh in and help make public policy, that would be one thing,” said Jaime Regalado, a political analyst and professor emeritus at Cal State Los Angeles.
“If, in fact, he’s trying to make it easier for a certain segment of the populace, the special interests or the lawyers or somebody else, then it raises a lot of concerns. So I think we’re going to have to see some of the details before we can make a decision,” Regalado said.
According to Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, Gatto’s idea isn’t new.
“In terms of providing legislation, you could do that right now,” Stern said. “When I taught at Stanford Law School, I asked legislators what they would like researched. I had four or five different laws proposed by the students. Then, the students went to Sacramento and testified for their bills.”
The student project was in 1970.
“This idea isn’t new; it’s just using Wikipedia. It’s a different way of getting ideas,” Stern said. “I think it’s a great idea to have people submit legislative ideas. That’s what representatives are for. (But) when I was in Sacramento, 90% — or a high number — of the ideas came from special interests. They have a better way to do it. Just go to the legislator directly.”
A good percentage of the proposed ideas on the wiki site will be “pretty crazy,” Stern said.
“But there will be a nugget or two with good ideas,” he added. “It’s going to take staff to sift through those ideas. It will be interesting to see what happens. The more interest in what’s going on in Sacramento, the better.”
Gatto said he isn’t concerned if the probate idea appeals primarily to lawyer-types.
“We kind of want lawyers to participate. They are voters, too,” Gatto, who has a law degree, said.
Justin Hager, Gatto’s spokesman, said residents don’t need an extensive public-policy background to provide input.
“Even if you don’t know how to draft something in formal language, you can share your ideas. Anyone can access the wiki and edit it. It is a true marketplace,” Hager said.
It’s not the first time Gatto has turned community input into law.
About a year ago, the assemblyman formed a small business advisory commission and one of the participants was being sued for not complying with Proposition 65, the voter-approved law requiring public places to display warning signs if any substance on their property could cause cancer or birth defects.
“His coffee shop didn’t have a sign,” Hager said. “A lawyer threatened to sue if he wasn’t paid $5,000. In some ways, he was being shaken down, extorted. Bret (Schoenhals) told us his story and the commission and the assemblyman said, ‘This isn’t right.’”
In the end, the small business commission spurred Gatto to draft legislation amending Proposition 65 to allow businesses a 14-day grace period before being fined for missing signage. The amended bill passed in the legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.
“The public feels shut out of the legislative process,” Gatto said. “Many people believe that drafting legislation has become the exclusive domain of special interests, and that drafting legislation occurs in smoke-filled rooms.”
Gatto said he hopes the wiki process will expand, with other legislators using it.
“We also want to show that this method of public participation is more meaningful than signing a petition, and more flexible — and a whole lot cheaper — than trying to pass a ballot initiative.”
Hager said Gatto will introduce whatever consensus emerges by the bill-introduction deadline in early February.
Gatto is also seeking business professionals interested in joining the 2014 Small Business Advisory Commission. For more information, email Gatto at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Business Commission” in the subject line.
Follow Tim Traeger on Twitter: @TraegerTim.
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