Small City’s Youth Council Plays Big Role in Local Governance
Gonzales’ Youth Council gives young people a voice in the local legislative process. One result, among many, is a better law for preventing underage drinking, city leaders say.
Social host laws that seek to further restrict teen consumption of alcohol have been adopted around the country, thanks largely to concerned parents and government officials.
But in Gonzales, a small city in the heart of California’s agriculture-rich Salinas Valley, the law arose from an unusual source: the teens themselves.
The city’s Youth Council, a school-based organization that has two Youth Commissioners who hold non-voting seats at the City Council, initiated the move and then worked with advisors to draft the ordinance and shepherd it through the City Council. Youth Council members then defended the move in meetings with upset teens who saw the Youth Council as a bunch of spoilsports.
The social host ordinance is the latest example of how Gonzales has integrated its youth into local civic affairs in a substantive way. The ordinance demonstrates that students can not only offer opinions and views but can actually affect governance in their community.
The ordinance took two years from inception to adoption, including meetings between Youth Council members and the city attorney to review existing ordinances and to draft one for Gonzales.
“Being part of the lawmaking process was both enlightening and welcoming,” said Cindy Aguilar, one of the two current Youth Commissioners. “We learned a lot. The best part was meeting with our city attorney to talk about the legal process and having all our questions answered.”
Harold Wolgamott, the public works director who serves as one of two advisors to the Youth Council, said the teens were persistent in their support of the ordinance despite resistance not just from party-loving teens but from the city itself. Gonzales had not experienced a rise in incidents related to teen drinking at parties. Some city officials questioned why the ordinance was needed. Existing laws already prohibit adults from supplying alcohol to minors. However, social host ordinances take the matter a step further by holding adults responsible when their property is the scene of teen drinking.
“The Council initially had some questions, which the Youth Council members were able to answer,” Wolgamott said. “The Council was impressed by how strong the youth felt about this issue and was very comfortable supporting the measure.”
Aguilar pointed out that conventional measures of whether there was a problem, like police logs, did not accurately reflect what was happening among Gonzales teens. She said she and her associate Youth Commissioner, Fabiola Moreno, felt a troubling trend was being overlooked.
“We noticed that the number of students who were attending social gatherings and consuming alcohol was gradually increasing,” Aguilar says. “This became obvious to us because our peers were posting about it on social media.”
The idea for the ordinance originated two years ago with Gonzales High School senior Anthony Avila, one of the two Youth Commissioners at the time. He had learned of other social host ordinances and how their goal was to protect teens who might drink and then drive or engage in other risky activities after consuming alcohol. His aim was to have a Gonzales ordinance enacted in time to help reduce alcohol consumption at private parties around his graduation. That timeline proved too ambitious. After his graduation, his successor Youth Commissioners, Aguilar and Moreno, took up the cause and carried it to completion.
The level of participation by the two Youth Commissioners and the Youth Council is part of an effort by the city to get youth more fully engaged in the community. When the Youth Council was launched a few years ago, the idea was to have it run on a higher level than typical youth councils, which tend to be school-based organizations that organize school activities and events and offer ideas about school operations.
Last year, members of the Youth Council testified before the City Council on proposals to allow marijuana cultivation and manufacturing within the city-limits, with arguments presented both for and against the measures.
The social host ordinance is the latest and most significant accomplishment of the Youth Council. Aguilar says its adoption carries forward the youth council’s goal of advancing important youth causes in the city. The ordinance imposes a $350 fine for the first offense, $550 fine for the second violation, and $750 for the third and subsequent offenses during a 12-month period. First and second time offenders can avoid a fine by completing a class on minors in possession of alcohol.
“We figured that this law could prevent many horrible events from occurring,” Aguilar said. “Ultimately, if we can save at least one life, it’s all worth it, even the negative comments from our peers.”
Irwin Speizer is a California-based communications consultant and freelance journalist. He wrote this article with the support of the city of Gonzales, California, a town of about 8,500 residents in the heart of the Salinas Valley. The valley, while technically part of the Salinas Metropolitan Statistical Areas, is approximately 90 miles long and is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the U.S.