The democratic legislator, whose 43rd Assembly District in part blankets Burbank, Glendale, La Cañada Flintridge and Montrose, is giving the ordinary Joe and Jane a unique opportunity to help craft legislation without having to run for office.
“We’ve encountered people in various settings who want to contribute to the process. They haven’t had as much access because they might not have a lobbyist. If you have ideas, we want to hear them and give people the power to make a difference,” said Justin Hager, Gatto’s spokesman.
People can propose legislation through an online “wiki” by visiting a “wiki bill’s” website. Not unlike Wikipedia, they can propose, draft, and edit a bill which Gatto will then introduce in the state Legislature.
“This is the first purely crowdsourced 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 Friday. If a special interest tries to game the system, Gatto said people will realize it and promptly correct any improprieties.
“Two things. We have the same checks and balances as Wikipedia itself. The whole idea is it’s designed to be self-policing,” Gatto said. “If you were to mention the L.A. Times and say it’s the best newspaper in the world, you would be shocked at how soon it would be corrected. I think because of the fanfare, people will watch it and will correct it if anything is wrong.”
The first topic on Gatto’s wiki agenda is probate law, which some say may attract lawyers exclusively. The topic also follows the November shooting death of Gatto’s father, Joseph. Both are purely 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 the 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. If he’s thinking outside the box and his aim is to truly expand the process and those trying to engage it, I don’t think it would be a bad idea. There are legal bodies that make public policy and he’s elected to one of those,” Regalado said. “I’m not sure it’s not a gimmick.”
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. This was in 1970. This idea isn’t new, it’s just using Wikipedia. It’s a different way of getting ideas. 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 percent — or a high number — of the ideas came from special interests. They have a better way to do it,” Stern said. “Just go to the legislator directly.
“A good percentage will be pretty crazy ideas,” Stern said. “But there will be a nugget or two with good ideas. 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 wasn’t concerned if the probate idea appeals to lawyer-types.
“We kind of want lawyers to participate. They are voters, too. There are people who have waited their whole life to propose legislation,” Gatto said.
“This is a great way for people to have a voice in their government,” Gatto said. “Too often, special-interest groups draft legislation. In contrast, 'crowdsourcing' a bill on the wiki platform will allow for a fully transparent brainstorming, drafting, and editing process that will incorporate ideas from a large group of people. The collective wisdom of the public will choose the final product.”
“We are reaching out to professionals and the public at large,” Hager said. “Even if you don’t know how to draft something in formal languages, you can share your ideas. Anyone can access the wiki and edit it. It is a true marketplace.”
It’s not the first time Gatto, D-Silver Lake, has turned community input into law.
About a year ago Hager said there was a small business advisory commission meeting and one of the participants was being sued for not complying with Prop. 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 Prop. 65 to allow businesses a 14-day grace period before being fined for missing signage. The amended bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.
“The public feels shut out of the legislative process. 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. “This approach allows the public to participate in the drafting of real legislation in a convenient and completely transparent way.”
Gatto said he wants the program to be inclusive and open to the masses.
“We hope that anyone with a good idea will contribute, from CPAs and similar experts to everyday citizens. My staff and I discussed this a lot over the last year, and they reminded me of Ben Franklin's maxim that everyone at some point deals with taxes and the death of a loved one. ‘Taxes’ might have been too general and controversial a topic, so we decided to start with the probate code,” Gatto said. “The beauty of this process is that we will be able to connect these people, along with their collective experience and expertise, to draft a common-sense piece of legislation that reflects the collective wisdom of the participants.”
What does he hope to achieve through the wiki process?
“I would hope more legislators take this lead and engage citizens, not special-interest groups, in drafting legislation,” Gatto said. “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.”
Gatto said technology will push any progress this “wiki bill” project may make.
“I really take to heart my duty to represent the views of the people who elected me. The processes are similar in the sense that the public can have their suggestions heard by their elected representative. What makes this process different is the use of technology: an entirely self-policed, Internet-based, open drafting process where a solid proposal will hopefully emerge from the ‘marketplace of Ideas.’”
As for the wiki initiative itself, Hager said it may take off in popularity.
“If the ideas end up working, this is an idea we want to run with,” Hager said. “There are other topics people have ideas about and are not able to express them.”
Those interested in participating should visit www.MikeGatto.wikispaces.com. Once there, users can see what other people have proposed, propose bill text themselves, edit what others have proposed, and view the history of the entire process — just like a Wikipedia entry.
Hager said Gatto will introduce whatever consensus emerges by the state Legislature's bill-introduction deadline, which is in early February 2014. Hager also stressed that Gatto’s office is currently looking for businesspeople interested in joining the 2014 Small Business Advisory Commission.
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