City Council takes children’s crusade too far
By Steve Maviglio
In November, voters elected three new City Council members. Two represent a new generation of leadership, Oak Park’s Caity Maple, 31, and Karina Talamantes, 33, of Natomas. Both earned their jobs in vigorous campaigns where they reached constituents and gained trust.
Soon, they will be joined on the council dais by another young person with a voice in council deliberations.
But this person will be different: hand-picked, never winning an election, never engaged with Sacramento voters. Why? Because a different City Council, in power days before Maple, Talamantes and Lisa Kaplan came on board, decided it was a good idea to have someone—maybe a high school sophomore—sit alongside them and weigh in on complex issues.
If this sounds like sensible city governance, no one else agrees. When the council considered the idea of seating an unelected young person, city staff surveyed major cities to determine whether any had taken a similar leap. The answer was no. Of course not.
That negative response should have indicated this isn’t the best idea. But the council pressed ahead. The appointment of a “youth advisory liaison” became official. The search is underway.
The council even decided the original proposal didn’t reach far enough into the youthful pool. It lowered the proposed minimum age from 18 to 16. Mayor Darrell Steinberg expressed his preference for a 16- or 17-year-old, saying he would welcome their perspective.
Most parents don’t think their 16-year-old’s views should weigh heavily in major decisions. Our mayor does.
To be clear, this person will not have a vote and will not be permitted to participate in closed sessions, which often involve litigation. But this hand-picked child—the council didn’t explain how the choice would take place—will sit with the council, attend staff briefings, ask questions at meetings, and offer thoughts on matters during public sessions. There’s even a stipend.
Why did we bother with recent elections?
Clearly, the goal is to ensure young people have a voice in city government. But offering a token, non-voting seat on the council is not the best way to secure meaningful, representative input.
As former City Council member Jeff Harris says, a better approach would be to empower the city’s Youth Commission, created in 2019, to provide advice to the council on relevant matters.
That body consists of 19 members, ages 14 to 24, from every section of Sacramento. Vetting issues before the Youth Commission would provide more comprehensive input and engage more young people in meaningful civic participation.
City Council member Eric Guerra says a majority of his appointees to city commissions are in their 20s. That approach, he suggests, provides “a fuller perspective” than designating a single young person to sit with the council.
Sacramento makes a significant commitment to youth, one that was adopted by voters in November. Measure L established a guaranteed annual revenue stream of around $10 million for a Sacramento Children’s Fund, ensuring that youth programs will be first among equals when budget cuts are required.
Once this non-voting youth member joins the council, it seems certain other groups will ask for their seats. Seniors come to mind, given that more than one in 10 Sacramento residents are over 65. Advocacy groups will fall in line.
During the discussion of the council’s youth seat, Steinberg asked opponents, “What are we afraid of?”
Here’s what: a governance structure that devalues the democratic process, purports to elevate youthful input when better options are available, and opens the door for a parade of others demanding the same consideration.
That’s something to fear.
Steve Maviglio is a Sacramento political consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.