Protect, reform and change were the first steps identified by some 500 participants at the Rebuilding California – From the Ground Up local government summit on Friday and Saturday in Sacramento.

As the legislature argued over whether to take money from schools to ease the pain on local government, the Cities Counties Schools Partnership sponsored a two-day brainstorming session in the Hyatt ballroom across the street from the Capitol. The group focused on solutions that did not pit education, public safety and health and welfare interests against each other.

Debates, testimony and tweets on restoring effective governance featured a wide-ranging debate on a Constitutional Convention, legislatively-driven reform initiatives and a better definition of local responsibility.

James Wunderman, executive director of the Bay Area Council, explained the limited Constitutional Convention concept of recruiting a “super grand jury” to brainstorm an overhaul of financing government that provides adequate, stable, certain revenue sources for local government.

“California government is broken,” Wunderman said. “To enact functional change, we need the best analysis possible and meaningful public involvement.”

The resulting proposal from approximately 400 citizens focusing on the issues for months would go to voters for approval, possibly as soon as 2012.

James Mayer, executive director of California Forward, suggested giving the legislature a chance to create stability by encouraging elected representatives to put open primary and term limit changes on the ballot along with proactive budgeting measures.

“We can start with a few issues then come back in 2012 with more changes,” Mayer said.

Both agreed that the two reform movements were not an either-or choice and could work together.

Bill Leonard, a former legislator and current member of the State Board of Equalization, warned that major changes could come with unintended consequences.

“I would argue that the system is not broken,” Leonard said. “This is not Honduras or Afghanistan.”

Instead, Leonard encouraged attendees to come up with and vote into the constitution a better definition of the role of local government.

Coordinated local government support will be essential.

“Any change will involve taking power from the state and legislators – even those who spent years at the local level – will fight giving away power,” Leonard warned.

In the end, attendees came up with four general priorities:

  1. Protect local revenue sources
  2. Reform term limits
  3. Change the way local taxes are set by doing away with the supermajority
  4. Require new funding sources for any new state requirements.

“This was a huge first step,” said Eva Spiegel, spokeswoman for the League of California Cities, which sponsored the event along with California State Association of Counties and California School Boards Association. “Now the members can go home and rally the troops to get citizens involved. Legislators need to understand that cities and counties are not special interests, they represent all Californians.”

Sacramento County Supervisor and announced Assembly candidate Roger Dickinson said interaction between local interest groups as the most important outcome of the two-day event.

“Even if it doesn’t have a great deal of impact on the current budget negotiations, the growing resolve on the part of officials about the relationship between state and local government is powerful,” Dickinson said.

The enthusiastic and wide-ranging solutions offered at the Rebuilding California event were evident in the Twitter stream that played across the stage during the event.

JT Long can be reached at