As we approach the November elections we can expect to see an increasing number of stories alluding to “special interests” and “pre-selected candidates” rising to assume public office. Allusions are often made to “dark forces” pursuing their private interests at the expense of the public good, casting aspersions on the character of whichever candidate they oppose.
In fact, you are the special interest if you join with friends to support a candidate you admire and trust to represent your perspective on how our community should be governed. This is not Chicago, there are no multi-million dollar contracts to be looted via graft as occurs in many metropolitan cities with powerful patronage systems at work.
The patronage system was the hallmark of eastern cities from about the 1840’s onward with new immigrants literally handed filled-out ballots to deposit at the local ballot box. Many couldn’t read or speak English well but were registered to vote along with most of the occupants of local cemeteries. In return they were given housing and public payroll jobs as long as they toed the line without dissent. Ward captains ruled neighborhoods with an iron fist, quite literally within ethnic enclaves and used ethnic and economic class prejudices of recent arrivals to better control the people. It worked quite well.
In California, Hiram Johnson led the reform effort at the beginning of the 20th century that devastated a nascent patronage system in local governments, resulting in a professional civil service and limited powers of elected officials to intimidate public employees. When an election occurs, there may be new council members but the public servants are protected by strong civil service laws and cannot be fired on a whim of a new council. A majority of the council can fire a city manager or the city attorney, but only within the bounds of their employment contract lest the city incur massive civil liability and attorney’s fees. All other city employees are under the control of the city manager and their respective department heads, not the city council.
In Atascadero, the mayor has limited ability to control the city, requiring a consensus of a majority (3 of 5 votes) of fellow councilmembers to enact any policy or directive. No single councilmember can act outside of the council as a whole to enact policy but must use persuasion of other councilmembers (not to mention the public) to obtain at least three votes to pass an item.
The mayor does have significant influence in setting agendas and determining which councilmembers sit on which committee or commission. The mayors’ public duties are considerably greater than other councilmembers as is demands upon their time. The mayor is the “face of the city” to outside investors, tourists and the general public, for good or ill.
All councilmembers have additional duties that take up considerable time outside of formal city council meetings to include reading voluminous reports from different state and regional agencies. Determining who sits on what committee or commission can have enormous impact on how you live your personal life as they bring all of their ideas and prejudices with them. That is why whom you select for mayor can be critical for how your city operates.
In past years, we often hear of “entrenched interests” and have candidates speak of the virtue of being an “outsider” prepared to sweep the corruption out of City Hall. The “corruption” of which they speak is often vague and ill-defined, but they know it’s there! What they’re really saying is they haven’t got a clue about how local government in California really works. We don’t have a patronage system but a system of benign technocrats who spend years at their job mastering a labyrinth of state regulations that could put a speed junky to sleep in a nanosecond.
A good proving ground for any aspiring candidate is volunteer service, usually on the City Planning or Park commissions. These entities initiate the novice into the formalities of participating in public meetings, adhering to quite strenuous state regulations on disclosures of conflicts of interest, personal assets, and the limits of discussion on topics under discussion within the parameters of the Brown Act, violation of which can result in stiff personal fines for elected and appointed officials. Most importantly, the public gets an opportunity to see how an individual comports themselves in public. Temperament is an important factor to consider when electing someone to office. Not everyone is temperamentally equipped to handle authority or be willing to passively accept unfair and blatantly untrue personal attacks directed their way when a decision upsets a member of the public. Serving on boards where removal is a procedural matter is an excellent proving ground for future elected officials who, once in office, can only be removed by an expensive recall procedure or another election.
Not everyone is afforded an opportunity to sit on appointed city boards or commissions. However, service in community service groups also plays a part in choosing candidates for office. What better way for the community to get to know you than by volunteering your time in a local service group? Normally, spending years of service in such groups will reveal leadership skills and may result in fellow club members to suggest you run for local office.
Atascadero is still a small town and there are no “Boss Tweed’s” running our world, just ordinary citizens who care enough to volunteer for long hours, hard work and personal sacrifice on your behalf.