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Democracy by dots 

Campaign finance reform fell victim to the city's flawed process for picking budget priorities

I was happy to see Michael Latner's piece ("SLO and democracy's future") in the last issue (May 4). I, too, was at the last SLO City Council meeting requesting a public discussion about campaign finance reform—described as low on the city's "budget priorities," priorities formed at public meetings known (both irreverently and pointedly) as "democracy by dots."

During the last such session, I joined hundreds of people who filled the Ludwig Center to overflowing. People signed up to make a plea to the assembled crowd about their concerns, pet projects, aspirations, etc. There was a multitude of speakers with strict and orderly time limits. Still, the entreaties to the crowd went on for hours. Issues were then loosely grouped by topic on large sheets of manilla paper and taped up around three walls of the auditorium.

Every attendee was given a set number of colored stick-on dots to apply to those issues that they consider a priority. When the speaking ended, hundreds of us made a beeline to "our" issue and then went on a frenzied search for other items worthy of our dots. The results are tabulated later to produce a hierarchy of budget "priorities."

The cause is noble but something like this should never be used as more than a general guideline in any budget process. As you might imagine, there are blocs of people who show up for a pet project such as pickleball courts. There are others who often have larger tangible community aspirations, such as street maintenance. And then there are those who come in with concepts worthy of thoughtful consideration, i.e., "discussion." But in this atmosphere, concepts are largely lost on the pickleball and pothole crowd, of which I was one. I, too, got caught up in those final moments of chaos and overlooked some bigger issues, thinking them "out of place" in that venue.

The city should assign values to these categories—those "selective" perks that only apply to a small zealous group should be discounted by 30 percent; citywide projects can be neutral; anything more cerebral (campaign finance reform) could be bumped up by 30 percent. In other words, every 10 dots for pickleball are counted as seven; potholes go 10 for 10; and issues worthy of discussion get 13 credits for every 10 dots. This would be a step toward recognizing that the dot democracy process has its limitations.

More than 16 states have already endorsed some variation of campaign finance reform on a statewide, municipal, or jurisdictional level. The mechanics and the legal expertise for this reform movement have been honed. A well-crafted proposal would not just ensure our local process is in-step but would bring us all one step closer to reform on the national level. As it's said, "Think globally, act locally."

Tell the SLO City Council that this should be a topic on a future agenda. Otherwise they will simply be blinded by the dots.

Jeanne Kinney advocates for campaign finance reform from SLO. Send a letter to the editor at [email protected] or send your comments through the editor at [email protected].

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