Democrazia diretta in California: intervista a Billy Rhyne

L’intervista a Billy Rhyne fa seguito a quella pubblicata nell’aprile scorso e che ha avuto come interlocutore Ira Johnston. Le risposte di Billy ci portano ad avvalorare ulteriormente le considerazioni in quell’occasione.

Direct democracy in California (II Part) – Interview with Billy Rhyne

Billy on occasion of Greg Delaune party "Zygmunt Bauman and the Curative Properties of Dolomite Schnapps party"Billy Rhyne is a landscape architect with over 15 years of experience at Bay Area landscape design firms. He has worked on a diverse range of projects and has a thorough knowledge of the process of turning a piece of land into a beautifully landscaped space.
He grew up in Tennesse, and moved out to California about 20 years ago. Now living in the County of Alameda, He is a regular participant in the voting process though mail in ballots and subscribes to various political journals to keep himself informed.
Like most landscape architects he is interested in sustainability and high quality design work, but beyond that, as his career has progressed, four main areas of interest & expertise have emerged: design with California native and drought tolerant plants, green roof design and construction, the translation of a good design into built form, and the management of complex projects.
He is continually inspired by the great variety of natural beauty in Northern California, and the incredible diversity and creativity of the people in the Bay Area!

Alex: How often do you vote for elections, referendums and others?
Billy: I vote in every election except the local ballot which is for Alameda County. We have a ballot every two years, either for local, State (California), or National (US)

Before going to vote, do you receive a voter information pamphlet issued by the authorities? Yes.

Which authority prints the pamphlet? Can you describe it? What does it contain? Ballots are prepared by County Election Officials or by State Election Officials. The ballots contain the measure to be voted on; an explanation of the reasoning behind the measure; a cost analysis of the measure, and who would pay what; and a pro and con argument for or against the measure.

In the brochure, is there information regarding financial support of the initiative? Yes.

Which is the level of transparency of the system to finance the different positions in the ballot? I think that the official information may not be completely transparent about who finances the different positions, often a new special group is formed to promote or oppose a measure and you have to dig deeper than the official information to find out where they are getting their funding.

How do you decide how to vote? Do you consult newspapers, magazines or web sites? Do you consult experts part of your network? Are there any independent newspapers or other types of progressive informative sources that you consult before the polling day?
My friends and I will talk about some issues together. I also get information from the news; from public policy debates; from independent progressive sources that I trust. I try and find unbiased news reporting (national public radio), or articles summarizing multiple viewpoints (I subscribe to a publication like that called The Week). If I can’t decide on a specific referendum, I generally vote against it because I generally disagree with the referendum system which is often used to bypass our representative government.

Do you discuss the issues proposed in the ballots with friends, family members or random people that you meet in your daily life before the vote? Definitely with friends, family and co-workers on certain important issues, but not necessarily on all of the issues on a ballot.

Is it common that citizens organize parties and meetings with their peers to debate and collect information before the polling day? If yes, can you describe it? I have gone to dinner parties where we were each assigned a topic to research and then gave a short summary, with discussion following that.  But it doesn’t happen for every election.

From your experience, are there the same political rights in other states such as in California? I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and went to college for a while in Knoxville, Tennessee, but moved to California about 20 years ago, so my memory of the specifics of the political system are not great. Tennessee is very conservative and that is one of the reasons I don’t want to live there. Definitely against medical marijuana and gay marriage, not to mention anti-environmental compared to California. When I go back to visit family I’m always amazed by the irresponsible development of car-dependant suburbs and small-business crushing chain stores everywhere, not to mention the very common obesity, etc.

California is considered a leading state for public policies. Why in your opinion? I don’t know how it started but California definitely has a long history of leading the nation in progressive policy. The interesting thing to me is that the 2 big population centers, San Francisco and Los Angeles are liberal, but the majority of the rest of the state is actually very strongly conservative republican. It is the large populations in the cities that out-votes the rural towns. San Francisco is most definitely a “liberal bubble” where it feels like the whole state is behind our liberal views, when in fact it is not, including large parts of suburban Los Angeles. The governor’s race is always fairly close between republicans and democrats.

Which role does direct democracy play in such a situation? Perhaps too much of a role, and that’s why I vote no if I can’t figure out what is the motivation behind a referendum and/or what the final result will be if it passes.

Is it true that California attracts resources to sustain initiatives that would be difficult to promote elsewhere? I agree with Ira. He said exactly what I would have said «California is a big State and a cultural leader. There is a saying here that “As California goes, so goes the Nation” » For example, the national Americans With Disabilities Act was based on California’s earlier law

Which political conditions characterize California? Are political rights more developed than other states? No, not really. The Nation generally shares the same ideals regarding political rights.

Do you vote for elections and referendums on the same day? Yes.

Is the tendency to concentrate referendums on some specific date? If yes, why? Yes. Sometimes referendums are put up for a vote on ‘off years’ when there are few offices up for election (the second year after a presidential election for example), and therefore less public participation when only the hardcore political people like me will show up to vote.

Can you remember which issues have been submitted to ballot in coincidence of the last Presidential election? Not exactly.

Can you remember the results? Not completely.

You voted for a GMO’s issue, can you tell us how you voted and why? I voted against it. It felt like it wasn’t written very well and that the exemptions from certain foods being labelled was totally arbitrary (no doubt based on political maneuvering by different lobbyists for certain foods)

You told me that despite you have no children, you voted to increase taxes in order to finance public school. What are your reasons? I have recently voted against parcel taxes to fund education in my local town (Albany) but they passed anyway.  Good schools are really really important for lots of reasons, but at some point I think it goes too far – recently local school districts have been raising local taxes for schools because of State cuts in school funding. Good schools also improve property values which is good for anyone who owns a home (like me).

Do the politicians accept the results from the ballots? Are the results made effective by public policies and do they affect citizens life? I guess generally, but I’m not good at following things for the long term.

How often do you skip the voting exercise? Maybe some off-cycle elections when I first moved here, but not for a while.

In Italy there is a participation quorum of the 50%. This means that if there not at least 50% of the people with political rights going to vote, the referendum is not valid. In recent years, the majority of the referendums have been invalidated. Basically, in those cases, the citizens not caring about public issues have decided for the citizens who have gone to vote. What are your thoughts on this quorum and can you comment this situation? I actually think that in a perfect world, citizens would be required to vote, and not just check a box, but be educated on the issues and then vote. But too few people think their one vote matters and so a 50% quorum would mean that nothing gets done.

Have you ever signed to promote an initiative? How do you sign to support an initiative? I almost always refuse to sign petitions, but have done so every once in a while. Most of the people asking for signatures appear to be in it for the money only.

In Italy, in order to support an initiative, signatures must be collected on specific papers endorsed by public authorities. A citizen can sign to support an initiative only in presence of a public officer (ie. Counsellor, notary, judge, etc.) and for every single signature the promoters must request an electoral certification to the electoral office of the Council. Do you have the same level of controls and bureaucracy in California? They may do some verification of signatures on a petition, but I am not sure.

In Italy, a citizen needs to show an identity document (I.D. card, etc.) to a public officer, both when he signs to promote an initiative and when he goes to vote, is it the same in California? No.

Do you know how many signatures (or the percentage of the voting population) do you need to collect in order to promote a referendum in Alameda County and in California state? I don’t know, I’d have to look it up.

In Italy we have just abrogative referendum, which means that citizens can only eliminate a law or part of it. This means that citizens can’t propose a new law. What are your thoughts on such a rule? I’m not sure about this – some people are too easily swayed by mob mentality to have control over any part of any law. I wish our representatives in the legislature were more truly representative of the majority of their citizens.

Which day of the week do you generally vote, is it a workday or weekend? I always vote by mail since I commute to work and usually don’t want to take time out of that to go somewhere to vote.

Can you describe to us how voting by mail works? You have to request a mail in ballot and return it by a deadline that’s before election day.

In Italy citizens can’t vote on public wages or on the indemnity of the politicians, can citizens do it in Alameda County and in California State? Yes.

In Italy citizens can’t vote on introducing, eliminating, substituting, rising or decreasing taxes, can citizens do it in Alameda County and in California State? Yes.

In Italy citizens can’t vote on approving or disapproving government decisions on public spending, can citizens do it in Alameda County and in California State? Yes.

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