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Off Camera

Your Voices Count

The money ran out and the media benefactors drifted, but Your Voices Count continued to speak out. Can this volunteer group of armchair political reformers still be heard?

By Will Harper

ON THE FRONT STEPS of the state Capitol the TV cameras were rolling, pens were scribbling. One month before the primary, curious reporters gathered to hear just what this group of fed-up South Bay voters assembled by their peers at the San Jose Mercury News and KNTV Channel 11 had to say. The 150-member group of readers and viewers, using the corny promotional name supplied by the Merc and KNTV, "Your Voices Count," had spent the past year studying up close the political world they only had seen on TV or read about in the newspaper. They proudly announced the culmination of their year-long endeavor to the media pack: the Statement of Accountability--a one-page outline for ethical behavior eventually signed by 145 legislators and candidates. Reporters, not known to be an optimistic bunch, were skeptical. "How do you expect to enforce your Statement of Accountability?" reporters asked. It was a question YVC members privately wondered about, but didn't have a clear answer for.

Still, they vowed that the Statement would be enforced--somehow. The $85,000 grant from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism that funded the project was about to run out. The end of the grant money meant the end of any direct involvement by the Mercury News. YVC was on its own.

Ultimately, a diluted YVC did enforce the Statement of Accountability in the general election. Assembly candidates such as Jim Cunneen and Karin Dowdy even filed formal complaints with the group against their opponents. But when YVC reported in subsequent press releases the findings of its investigations into those complaints, no one in the media listened. Even the Merc, which ran glowing stories while YVC was under its wing, didn't cover the group's findings.

Jo Jackson, a Los Altos therapist who has spent countless hours of her own time and money on YVC's efforts, found the lack of media interest frustrating. Without media play, YVC has little ability to give its Statement of Accountability any teeth. "We had put an incredible amount of work into it," she recalls, "but it seemed like the candidates cared more than the press did." Jonathan Krim, assistant managing editor for the Mercury News, explains that once the reader project ended, editors viewed YVC as one of dozens of community organizations competing for media attention, and didn't want to treat it more favorably than another, even if the paper did start it. "Media coverage is certainly an issue for any citizens organization," Krim adds. "But I don't think any citizens group should be dependent on it."

Today, YVC has about 20 people left who are still trying to figure out exactly what their mission is. None of YVC's members boast activist backgrounds or experience in grassroots organizing. They're just regular suburban folks who got ticked off enough about money corrupting politics that they took action. Orvil Jones, a retired aerospace worker from Cupertino, admits he was a "check-writing activist" who gave money to campaign reform organizations like Common Cause, but ultimately felt that money disappeared without any tangible results. "Silicon Valli" Sharpe-Geisler, a teacher who ran for Congress on the Reform Party ticket last year, describes herself as a former "couch politician" who watched and complained about government without doing anything. Phil Whalen, a retired engineer, didn't regularly vote let alone deconstruct voluminous campaign disclosure statements. Now he's appeared twice before a state legislative committee to speak in favor of electronic campaign filing.

Despite YVC's identity crisis, the group remains amazingly active: It's working with Cunneen on legislation that would force political campaigns to file contribution reports electronically. It also is in the process of creating a Web magazine. Nevertheless, because it is made up entirely of volunteers, YVC remains administratively challenged. When I interviewed six YVC members a few weeks ago, there was disagreement over whether YVC had an official address or phone number. "It's a pretty big job for just a handful of people," Jones sighs. "Whether we'll get over the hump or not, I don't know."

There's reason for optimism. According to Alexander, the Pew Foundation is offering new grants helping fledgling groups such as YVC that were launched by civic journalism projects and then left to fend for themselves. In the meantime, YVC member Mike Knefaty hopes the group's numbers will grow. "We want more citizens to join us and learn and participate in the process," Knefaty says, adding with total sincerity, "because their voices count."


For more information, call the official YVC phone number at (408) 323-1835 or email YVC.

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From the February 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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