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The State of Marin 2017: The Empire Strikes Back

In the David v Goliath battle to force our local governments and their agencies to be more transparent and accountable, we are seeing signs of successes by grassroots organizations such as the Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans (CSPP) and newer groups like the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers (CO$T).

My own organization, Community Venture Partners, has also continued its efforts for better planning and the inclusion of community voices in government decision making in Marin. However, in the face of this, instead of becoming more transparent and law abiding, local government has, in many cases, just become more clever and calculating.

It’s clear that many city and county agencies have become more strategic in how they respond to those questioning them. The County’s overt hostility toward Public Records Act requests and legal challenges, in particular, has ratcheted up noticeably. I would go so far as to say that the office of the County Counsel has taken on a demeanor more akin to a white collar criminal defense law firm than a public agency.

The Marin County Counsel’s office seems to believe that every challenge deserves an aggressive legal response. They have repeatedly demonstrated that they are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs at the slightest provocation, trying to bully and out-spend their opponents into submission, even in instances where relatively free settlement and cure options exist. At the same time, the Marin Board of Supervisors has apparently taken a hands-off approach to their behavior, perhaps to be better able to feign ignorance (plausible deniability) if proven liable for their actions.

State and regional control increasing and the costs to taxpayers is rising

The headwinds coming from Sacramento against community control have increased. The push to urbanize Marin has never been greater. Driven by the explosive jobs growth in the tech sector, increasingly powerful regional agencies such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and ad hoc industry led groups such as the Bay Area Council, aligned with well-funded labor, corporate and housing advocacy groups have recently managed to push through far-reaching, pro-growth legislation.

A myriad of new bills[1] significantly remove local control of zoning and project approval for high density housing development, dramatically increase legal liability and penalties for cities that don’t approve projects, and adds new fees and penalties and a new bond measure to create multi-billion dollar funding pools to underwrite that development.

I anticipate that this is just the beginning of a long list of new fees, taxes and debt measures that will come forward in the next five years to fund top-down control of local land planning, zoning, housing development and even construction worker’s wages. At the same time, I also anticipate the further deterioration of local government services.

The State’s increasing need for more taxpayer dollars is further exacerbated by California’s unfunded pension liabilities and the state’s apparent attempt to take on challenges such as affordable housing and universal healthcare, which have historically been funded by the federal government. While I support the idea of having universal healthcare and I am sympathetic to the fact that the federal government continues to give us back less and less of our federal tax dollars and provides us with fewer and fewer services and benefits, California is not a sovereign country and so, its grand plans and debt burdens will eventually have to be paid on the backs of its dwindling middle class.

All of this adds urgency to the arguments that many of us have been making about the need to be more thoughtful in how we zone and plan for growth, and more realistic in terms of how we address the challenges of housing affordability and other issues such as public pensions. Although we clearly have a responsibility to plan for growth and housing demand as best we can in a market driven economy, I believe the methods Marin cities are pursuing are often the worst ways to accomplish that.

In May of this year, before a gathering at the Marin Coalition, I discussed why we are failing to address housing and growth with our current policies, and what we might do to really make a difference. The Marin Coalition comments can be read in their entirety using at this link.

The essence of those comments was that local housing affordability is not a local problem, but more the result of a combination of historical consequences, tax law, income distribution and national and international market and economic forces far beyond our control. Therefore, attempts to force small cities to resolve their housing challenges at a local and regional level or even at a state level are destined to fail to produce meaningful results and can also do great harm.

In April, I gave the keynote speech at the California Grand Jurors’ Association Annual Luncheon. Those comments can be read in their entirety using at this link. My comments included themes I’ve touched on in the past, in particular with regard to government’s flagrant disregard for the California Environmental Quality Act and their lack of transparency. CVP’s recent comments on the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard Rehabilitation Plan, are a case in point.

Unfortunately, new legislation is being considered at the local, state and national level to limit public access to government information. In addition, based on responses to several Public Records Act requests CVP has initiated in the past year, we now have clear evidence that documents, records and particularly emails are being intentionally destroyed and deleted by county and city agency staff and elected officials to obfuscate their participation in activities of questionable legality.

Government is not keeping up with the times

Although it’s clear that a bunker mentality has set in at many of Marin’s city and county agencies and also among a number of elected officials, there is equal evidence that this is also driven by a systemic breakdown due to the overwhelming fatigue from simply trying to keep up with our 21st century, 24/7 information-enabled world. Public officials at all levels seem mentally unprepared, technically unequipped and woefully lacking in training to deal with the demands for transparency that the Internet has brought upon them. In a world where state and federal regulations and compliance and reporting requirements are becoming increasingly complex, it seems that our quaint form of local governance just can’t keep up.

In my opinion, the County is the worst offender in all this. However, our small cities have their own unique challenges. The very structure of our local city governments may need to be called into question. Is our “strong city manager”--“weak elected council” model really adequate to address the challenges that small, under-funded towns face?

As it is, we regularly see staff running roughshod over uninformed elected officials and purposely designing their public “engagement” process to produce pre-determined outcomes. Worse, elected bodies are too often treated on a “need to know” basis by staff. This may be, in part, because real public engagement would be logistically overwhelming without a complete technological overhaul of antiquated records keeping and data management systems. But, how will these changes be implemented, when there is no incentive for staff to change? Despite the pretense of being “accessible” via social media platforms, such as Facebook and NextDoor, most towns have become increasing opaque.

Do we need to see fundamental changes to our traditional small town governance before we will see substantial improvement? That might include paying elected officials respectable salaries (without benefits) in order to attract a bolder candidates (can we really afford not to pay them, any longer? And, besides, anyone doing those jobs deserves to be paid), and restructuring our cities to have separately elected mayors, who can carry out longer term public policy goals and have the power to recommend the hiring and firing of city staff.

This is not to say that all Marin cities need such change and I can think of scores of past and present council members and staff who have done or are doing incredible jobs. But, many are not and some of our Marin cities are foundering, badly.

A full discussion of this and related stories can be found in the Community Venture Partners, Inc. 2017 Annual Report, attached below.

[1] See Broad Affordable Housing Bill Package Signed by Governor, on the Marin Post for more information.