California’s periodic crises have often yielded opportunities for innovation in public policy. From progressive reforms at the turn of the twentieth century to “sunshine” laws in the 1950s, Californians have been quick to act when they perceive that government won’t—or can’t—do what needs to be done. So far in the twenty-first century, however, an ongoing economic crisis may require a different sort of response, one that fundamentally rethinks interaction between residents and governments.

At a time when the California government is synonymous in the popular mind with polarization and mistrust, such a task may seem daunting. But in cash-strapped localities across the state, residents and government officials are working together not only to determine spending priorities, but also to fill in service gaps left by funding cuts. The effort is receiving bipartisan support even in the gridlocked California legislature. Marin County Democrat Jared Huffman’s Assembly Bill 42 allows community groups and nonprofits to help save 70 state parks slated for closure earlier this year. The legislation passed 75–1 in the Assembly and 35–2 in the state senate; Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law in October. Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, explained that two state parks are already run by nonprofits. But, she added, “both of these required a long and arduous legislative process to get their statute.” With the new law, nonprofits should be able to enter into operating agreements with parks more easily.

In the recent past, such a plan would likely have been seen as a step on the road to privatization—typically a dirty word in the Golden State—and met with strong opposition. But crises have a way of focusing the mind, and Governor Brown’s designation of 70 state parks for termination had exactly that effect. Drawing more than 85 million visitors annually, California’s state-park system is one of the largest in the nation. California residents have taken for granted easy access to state beaches, mountain parks, and historic sites, but now the parks’ future is in their hands.

AB 42 is opening opportunities to creative solutions from civic and business leaders like Tony Magee, founder of the Lagunitas Brewing Company. When Magee, a former resident of Lagunitas, heard that the local Samuel P. Taylor State Park was on Brown’s closure list, he put together a plan to take over economic responsibility for the park from the state. Lagunitas Brewing would set up a nonprofit with a $1 million annual budget to run the park, creating a community project with local employees as well as volunteers.

The potential for such partnerships extends well beyond parks. In collaboration with the National Conference on Citizenship, the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University (where I’m a research coordinator) recently released a report, “Golden Governance: Building Effective Public Engagement in California.” In addition to providing a guide for communities interested in developing working relationships with residents, the paper highlights several successful collaborative projects.

One such success can be seen in the small city of Auburn, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where residents have demonstrated that civic engagement can mean much more than voting, showing up at a town hall meeting, or clicking through an online survey. It can also mean getting your hands dirty. Residents decided that they couldn’t wait for an economic recovery to start protecting their homes and businesses from wildfires. The city backs onto the American River Canyon, much of which is owned by the Federal Bureau of Reclamation. But due to federal budget cuts, the Bureau has been unable to maintain an 11-mile-long firebreak along the canyon. City residents negotiated permission from the local BOR manager to construct the firebreak. Hired professionals, local firefighters, and members of the California Conservation Corps cut brush and dead trees, while volunteers handled removal. The first such city-sponsored “Project Canyon Safe” day event was held in May 2010; since then, the community has continued with 18 neighborhood projects and a second annual citywide project on July 11, which cleared 4.21 acres of brush in one day.

Observing the young American republic in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the vital roles that civic associations played in public life: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. . . . I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.” For much of the twentieth century, this American way of accomplishing things seemed in decline as a more bureaucratic, administrative state became the norm. But in the face of harsh economic realities, the policymaking landscape is changing. The twenty-first century may prove to be a new era of associative democracy in California, and perhaps nationwide.


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