Taking the politics from the political process

Today, the most painstaking and public job search in California will begin.

Applicants will be required to provide detailed personal histories about themselves and their relatives. Those deemed to have met minimum qualifications will have their names publicly disclosed and be subjected to public comment and criticism.

Their applications will be reviewed by a panel of three experienced, independent auditors.

Those considered likely to make a list of 120 semi-finalists will have to complete forms detailing their sources of income, real-estate assets and stock holdings. All this financial information will also become available for public inspection.

Near the end of the grueling selection process, each of 60 finalists will face the prospect of being blackballed by a Democratic or Republican political leader in Sacramento.

They will have to go through all this and more to get a shot at one of 14 temporary jobs, without benefits, that pay $300 a day.

The job search that begins today will kick off California's era of independent redistricting -- the drawing of legislative district lines in 2011 that will be performed by a citizens' commission rather than by the Legislature.

The idea of independent redistricting always has had a certain appeal in California, mostly because of the political tradition of lawmakers drawing districts specifically to accommodate themselves, their friends and their parties.

Until last year, however, efforts to enact this reform always were stymied by one obstacle: the issue of who, if not lawmakers, would get the power to draw the districts. Any number of ideas were floated: the Supreme Court, the secretary of state, a panel appointed by the Judicial Council, or one appointed by legislative leaders. Retired judges were popular; one proposal suggested a panel of them, another suggested one made up of members appointed by them.

One by one, these ideas were rejected by voters.

Then, last year, came Proposition 11, which provided for a citizens' commission that would be selected through a process only a bureaucrat could love, or even understand. It passed, and the job of carrying out the complex selection process was dumped in the lap of the state auditor.

Auditor Elaine Howle has done a commendable job of following through. She has laid out elegant rules to implement the selection process. But she had to follow the law, and the law itself was clumsily complicated.

First, the application process sets out to disqualify all who, by virtue of their political activism, are prohibited from engaging in what is arguably the state's most important political process.

Political amateurs who survive the first cut will complete an expanded application that includes four essay questions and a requirement that each applicant provide three letters of recommendation. Applicants must demonstrate that they are:

Sensitive: Applicants must certify that they recognize the benefits of granting effective political participation to racial and ethnic groups that in the past have been under-represented in the electoral process.

Impartial: They must show that they can set aside personal financial interests, biases for or against certain groups or geographic areas, support for or opposition to political candidates or causes, and have no relationships or aspirations that "a reasonable person would consider likely to improperly influence" their decision-making.

Civic-minded: Their voting records must show that they voted in at least two of the last three elections.

Competent: They must show that they have considerable analytical skills, including proficiency at math, familiarity with computers and various software programs, and the ability to resolve complex problems when confronted with "factual ambiguities."

Available: The hours will be long during much of 2011 and duties will include attending hearings up and down the state, in evenings and on weekends to accommodate the public.

This is an experiment in government as an academic would draw it up: using a rigorous public selection process to choose bright, dispassionate people whose civic duty drives them to work long hours at modest pay, giving up their jobs and personal lives for the better part of a year to make unbiased, fact-based decisions.

It would be great if such an antiseptic model of good government could work, but politics by its nature tends to be a messy thing. It remains to be seen whether it's possible to take the politics out of politics.

Timm Herdt is chief of the Ventura County Star state bureau.