by Don Greene
Did you watch the news last night? You probably heard about the big thing that President Obama did or the big thing that Congress didn’t do. But did you hear about the water rate increase in your city? Or the new cost for sewer service? Maybe you didn’t hear that there is a new assessment on your property taxes for that new civic building. All of these things are controlled by your local governments, not Congress or the president, and they affect you much more than anything that happens in Washington.
Our local elected officials – city council members, water board members, school board members, hospital board members – all have a greater impact on what happens in your daily life, far more than your member of congress. This impact is far reaching and usually hits your wallet or quality of life. It is for this reason that we need to have an engaged citizenry and a line up of people who are willing to run for local elections and hold local offices that will make decisions for the people, not for special interests. Take for example the Palomar Hospital Board. They are 5 elected officials – most of whom are re-elected term after term because of apathy and lack of interest. In the last few years, this Board has built a new hospital that has cost the residents of their hospital district over $950 million dollars. They have also transferred vital behavioral care services from North County to a location not easily accessible to those who need the services most. Was there outrage over these steps? Yes. Was there anything that anyone could about it? Yes. Run and be elected to the Board.
With the current drought situation, water boards are making decisions on almost a daily basis about water usage and how much that will cost. Do you know who will be making these decisions? If you live in Oceanside, Carlsbad or Escondido, your City Council members will be deciding your rates. If you live in other parts of North County, members of the Olivenhain or Vallectios Water Districts will be making those decisions. All of these positions are elected and, for the most part, many of these people are winning election after election because the population either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.
As a final example, take the case of the increasing number of charter schools in our neighborhoods and the decreasing amount of funding for the non-privatized, public schools. As more and more coporations understand and learn that there is money to be made off of schooling a small portion of our children, more charter schools are opened. In Escondido, a branch library was closed, and the building leased to the biggest charter school in the city. And the group that bears the blame is the school district board. They are elected officials that control the issuance of charters to schools within their jurisdiction. As they continue to not do their job – look out for the well being of their students – they continue to run, mostly unopposed, for office year after year. The biggest threat to our democracy and the idea of public accountability in local government is the apathy that voters have toward these offices. While the vast majority of people sit by and watch the same few people run for office, time after time, the system which we like to complain about will never change.
And what of the special interests that were mentioned earlier? Did you know that there are organizations and agencies that specialize in lobbying these entities and focus their efforts on getting people who will support their ideas and projects elected? The League of California Cities has a special branch that works with local jurisdictions. The Building Industries of America (BIA) and Association of Building Contractors (ABC) both have legislative arms that lobby local governments to support their projects and their positions. While you’re at work trying to keep your head above water, these groups are at work trying to remain unnoticed. The answer to the problem is age old. Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis once said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” We must break open the lock that the special interests have on our elected officials and local governments. We must do away with the “good ole boy” networks that exist in our local governments. The best solution for this, as Justice Brandeis indicates, is sunlight.
Sunlight comes in many different forms. First, we must be a more vigilant citizenry that watches the doings of our local governments and boards. We elected these officials to do the work of the people, in the best interest of the people. Unfortunately, more times than not, our officials end up doing what’s best for the special interests and themselves, at the expensive of the people. Second, we must stand up and be candidates for office. To rid the effects of special interests and corruption, we must remove those who are corrupt and who bow down to the lobbyists.
In 2016 there will be a number of key elections happening. Along with those key elections, there will be seats open on your local water district, school board and/or hospital district board. Will you allow the same people to be re-elected and continue what they have been doing for years and years? Or will you step up and run for one of these seats and bring your sense of responsibility to the public to that office?
French philosopher Joseph-Marie comte de Masitre said, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” I will extend his remarks and say that every city gets the governments that it deserves. If we, as progressive residents of these cities, do nothing to change the system, we get exactly what we deserve.