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Marin 2016 - Part I: Is representative government slipping away?

I would guess that most people assume that their “elected representatives” represent them. Conversely, they probably assume that their representatives understand that’s what they were elected to do.

But what if that’s not the case?

The Greeks are credited with inventing democracy and representative governance, and the Romans are credited with perfecting it, though it’s important to keep in mind that the terms “democracy” and “rights” are not directly connected. However, as was the case when our own Constitution was written, representative government was adopted not just because of our democratic ideals but also as matter of practicality. If it took days or weeks to reach Washington on horseback, there was no other way to make local voices heard than to send elected representatives. After all, a whole town couldn’t just get up and ride to the capital every time something was being debated. And so, trusting that your representative would speak for your concerns came with the territory.

Today, most people believe representative democracy automatically means having a say in government decisions. But even if that were the case (which unfortunately, it’s not), human nature being what it is, there’s always been the danger that your “representative” will get a big head or start playing all sides against the middle for personal gain, or make decisions without consulting you.

And there’s the rub, which continues to plague us. However, there is an even bigger problem, which is that some elected representatives think that caring about what you think is not part of their job description.

In any case, representative government is the system we’ve got, even though I find myself wondering some days if in this Internet Age, it hasn’t outlived its usefulness. Shouldn’t we be trying to move toward more direct and immediate interaction with our government?

Who represents whom?

In his Marin IJ column of May 28, 2016 about the supervisorial race between Kate Sears and Susan Kirsch, Dick Spotswood commented that there are two distinct views of what it means to be an elected representative. According to Spotswood, the first was championed “by the 18th-century British intellectual and member of Parliament, Edmund Burke,” who held that “once elected, he wasn’t in parliament to do the bidding of his constituents. It was his duty to vote according to his best judgment[1].” The opposing view is “that elected officials serve as the electorate’s ambassador to the governing body on which they serve. This ideal holds that officials, while retaining ethical discretion and wide latitude on methods to achieve the public’s goals, are essentially advocates for their constituents’ interests.[2]

So, there’s an 18th century view and a 21st century view. But do both systems lead to the same outcomes?

As the demand for transparency and participation rise, government circles the wagons

My contention is that the more Edmund Burke’s version of being a “representative” takes hold, this leads to a disconnection between government officials and the citizens they serve in a way that inherently breeds a culture of secrecy, political influence peddling, and ultimately the corruption of our democratic process.

Today, in Marin, we routinely see too many elected officials, and even more so their administrators, town managers, staff and government legal counsel treating resident’s complaints as an affront, evidence of disloyalty, and an unwanted intrusion. Requests of staff for information under California’s Private Records Act, for example, are routinely met with trumped up excuses for why public documents are unavailable for inspection. Or worse, supplicants are often told that no records exist even when that could not possibly be true.

More remarkably, as was the case when residents asked for records regarding the approval process for WinCup, Corte Madera Town Clerk, Rebecca Vaughn, responded that “pre-decision communications” by staff and consultants were not public because releasing them would “impair the thought process of government decision makers,” and ”severely impair the government official’s ability to freely and candidly deliberate.”[3]

Wow.

Legally, this was nonsensical and they eventually had to back down and provide many of the documents requested. But, the fact that they would choose to obstruct the public’s right to know, as their first response, is telling and increasingly typical.

When the stakes get even higher (i.e., when a law suit is filed), we see reactions that are best described as “scorched earth tactics” that involve defamatory denials, sanctimonious diatribes, and throwing large sums of the public’s money at lawyers in an attempt to bully the petitioner into going away. Combine this with more mundane, business as usual government inefficiencies and dysfunction and you end up with a cascade of negative impacts and unintended consequences.

How did WinCup happen?

People continue to ask this question. In their minds, it seems unfathomable that the monstrosity that is now years behind schedule could have been the result of anything except some kind of extraordinary conspiracy, complete with bags of money changing hands in subterranean garages. But in reading the Staff Reports and Minutes of planning commission and town council meetings, and studying the course of events that resulted in the development’s approval, its gestation was much less nefarious that one might assume.

If you read the minutes from the hearings, you find that some commissioners and council members did ask important questions about environmental regulations, traffic, and community impacts. Unfortunately, the laconic answers they received from the Planning Director, the Town Manager, staff, and paid consultants made “brevity” look like a big word.

Their questions were often met with half-answers, erroneous opinions, and obfuscation. In many instances, the Corte Madera Planning Director, responded by citing inapplicable regulations (ABAG requires it), or assuring questioners not to worry and that planners had things covered. With that, the line of inquiry usually ended and everyone voted unanimous approval without requiring an Environmental Impact Report, even though the site was known to have used and produced a number of toxic chemicals on the EPA’s lists. At times, it certainly appears that decision makers were led to a predetermined conclusion.

Certainly, elected officials dropped the ball in approving WinCup (the Tamal Ridge Apartments), with too little protest. And there was significant political pressure from the Association of Bay Area Governments (“ABAG”) and the Department of Housing and Community Development (“HCD”) to approve it. Even County Supervisor Steve Kinsey weighed in supporting WinCup. However, the Corte Madera Planning Director appears to have played a major role in WinCup’s approval. It was, I’m told, his “pet project.”

Why, I don’t really know. Maybe he really believed it was a good project.[4]

However, the more important question is how were a few individuals are able to manipulate the planning process of an entire community and shape its future, so easily? The answer, again, is perhaps more mundane and far more commonplace than you might think.

Put simply, I think it all starts when elected officials and the special interest groups who support and protect them, believe they are no longer required to consider the wishes of all resident in the community, and it spreads from there, infecting the entire system.

A Trifecta of Dysfunction

Step 1: Lack of Transparency Enables Mismanagement

A lack of government transparency and accountability arises either to cover up corruption and mismanagement, or its existence invites it and enables it. Today, the financial and political stakes become higher for each decision and the unbridled power of unelected regional agencies warps sensibilities, few are capable of saintly decisions unless they know they have a good chance of getting caught.

Political favoritism, fudging facts, knowingly misleading the public and elected officials, plus considerable amounts of ignorance and incompetence, are the stepchildren of decreased transparency and accountability, and create a culture of dysfunction.

As the public has become increasingly aware of what’s going on and demanding greater transparency and participation, instead of responding positively and embracing our new inter-active age, we’re seeing government doing the exact opposite. And as government becomes more defensive, public protest only grows louder.

As the number of decisions made behind closed doors increases, it inevitably leads to…

Step 2: Negative Impacts and Unintended Consequences

A decision-making process grounded in opaque dealings and led by political influence, ideological agendas and personal ambition, usually leads to inequitable, counterproductive public policy, the outcomes of which usually include a long list of unintended, negative impacts.

These impacts are eventually brought to the attention of elected representatives by their constituents, though it’s usually long past the time anything can be done about it. However, instead of reversing misguided policies, local government today seems to concentrate more on saving face, better marketing, pointless public “workshops” (more marketing), and enlisting the services of high paid handlers and consultants of all descriptions.

Public “study sessions” in Marin have become vapid, dog and pony shows without any real opportunity for meaningful input. People are divided into small “discussion” groups led by professional handlers, and not allowed to comment on anything off the agenda. Questions are summarily ignored unless they support predetermined “choices.” In other words, the public is allowed to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic but not allowed to question its route.

Meanwhile, the proliferating negative impacts inevitably lead to…

Step 3: Escalating Taxes, Fees and Cost of Living

Ill-conceived public policy too often results in the need for more revenues to deal with unforeseen, negative consequences. Myopic planning and development approvals that fail to take into account the cumulative impacts on schools, infrastructure, and public services demand more revenue sources to address those impacts. And, in an attempt to avoid public criticism, government too often resorts to quick fix “just throw more money at it” thinking to appease critics and show that they are “doing something” about the problems.

In this environment, policy decisions become increasingly influenced more by special interests and attempts to stimulate growth than focused on serving the community being impacted. And the solutions proposed often make everything worse. This is particularly true on the national, state and regional levels, which filter down to local government in the form of mandates and overriding regulations.

As a result, new committees are formed, more consultants are hired, and planning policy becomes more aligned with the politicized visions of state and regional agencies, which promise to help “fix” the problems in exchange for sizable grants (bribes).

Zoning becomes less about enhancing and preserving the community’s character and quality of life than about bringing in as many government grants and new development fees as possible. The focus of planning also becomes more driven by avoiding penalties or currying favor with powerful agencies, than addressing local problems (i.e., actually building enough affordable housing).

As we continue to mint new quasi-governmental agencies at a rapid rate, the financial burdens of supporting this ever expanding mess, with the concomitant salary and benefits excesses required, results in a never-ending cascade of regressive fees, bond measures, and new taxes levied on those least able to pay, just to enable local government to continue to provide basic public services.

Public services and management responsibilities that only a few decades ago were easily paid out of a municipality’s general fund are today constantly being broken out as “new” taxes and fees, resulting in an a la carte government financing model that forces residents to essentially pay twice for the same service. All of these additional fees and taxes are passed through by real estate developers and directly impact the costs of home ownership and renting, making it harder for young people, service workers, retirees and teachers to live in our community.

Worse still, in the fine print, few of these measures indicate how the money will actually be spent, or guarantee that the funds raised will be allocated to the purposes intended. Add to this that many of these taxes and fees have regressive “inflation” escalation clauses that increase their costs by as much as a 5% compounded rate, per year (at a time when the U.S. CPI is running at 0.8%).

So, where does this leave us?

There are micro-economic and social forces that are driving current trends in planning, affordable housing, public transportation, and how Marin’s government operates, and there are larger, macro-economic forces connected to regional, state, national and international dynamics that are also likely to shape our future.

The truth is most of our local challenges may no longer be able to be solved only at the local level. It is impossible to address affordable housing or social justice without talking about outside subsidy, public transportation, income inequality, and tax law. We can’t really talk about city planning without considering how traditional business models are rapidly being transformed and deconstructed. While academic planners may still pine for a Norman Rockwell-esque vision of apartments over quaint shops, with retailing and service industries increasingly becoming virtual, who will actually fill all those retail spaces?

There is no doubt that a great deal is at stake, locally, regionally, and beyond. And, as things stand, there’s a risk that the future of Marin may bear little resemblance to its past. So, how do we as communities, make decisions in this environment? And what is the proper role now of our locally elected representatives?

There’s also no doubt that the rising concerns for local control are not unique to Marin. Community voices for bottom-up control are steadily growing everywhere. It’s a national and international phenomenon that in some cases is getting very ugly but unless government becomes more responsive it is not going away any time soon.

We also need to ask ourselves if the present dysfunctions we see in our local government are only the result of bad decisions and bad actors, or are the forces outside of our control creating pressures that are bringing out the worse in people.

Are city officials becoming more defensive these days because that’s what human beings do when they feel overloaded? Or, is Warren Buffet’s old adage about tough times applicable that “When the tide goes out, you get to see who’s been swimming naked?” Or, maybe we just find ourselves in a time when things have gotten so complicated and the consequences of our actions are so interconnected that our beloved “Mayberry by the Bay” style of local government (I’ll be “mayor” today and you can be mayor tomorrow ) just isn’t up to the task of dealing with it all.

One thing is certain. Without greater government transparency and accountability at the local level, there is little chance of stemming the tide of regionalism that is tightening a noose around our ability to retain some semblance of control over our destiny.

About now you may be feeling that these challenges seem hopelessly complicated and intractable. What, you might ask, could any one person do about it, even if they wanted to?

As the old saying goes, if you want to get somewhere, start where you are.


Read Part II - Will the suburbs be hunted to extinction?

Read Part III - Dispatches from the front - Mill Valley

Read Part IV - Dispatches from the front - Corte Madera

Read Part V - Dispatches from the front - Hamilton Field

Read Part VI - Dispatches from the Front - Marin County Government

Read Part VII - What will you do when Marin is no longer Marin?

Read Part VIII - Hide the ball

Read Part IX - Regionalism

Read Part X - Endgame


[1] Kate Sears, per Spotswood.

[2] Susan Kirsch, per Spotswood.

[3] Response to April 28, 2015 Public Records Act Request by Friends of Corte Madera

[4] Former Corte Madera Planning Director, Robert Pendoley, has since moved on to be the Chairman of the Marin Workforce Housing Trust, a quasi-government organization funded primarily by Marin County and the Marin Community Foundation.