From MICHAEL FOLEY
As the electoral season comes to a close, there’s a question nagging that hasn’t been asked the candidates for Board of Supervisors and city councils around the county. To my mind it’s the key question. What I as a voter and citizen want to know is: What do you propose to do about the democratic deficit in the county?
No, not the fiscal deficit. I’ve heard all your answers (and they don’t much impress me). I mean the democratic deficit.
What’s a democratic deficit? To start with, we’re saddled with fundamentally undemocratic institutions. At both county and city levels, we’re asked to choose five people to make decisions for thousands, with no more provision that they bide by the wishes of the public than the custom that most meetings start with something called “public expression.” As if citizen participation were a matter of group therapy, with citizens allowed a minute or two to get it off our chests. Then we’ll all feel better. Right.
I know. I know. If we’re dissatisfied with our representatives, we can always vote them out. Some years hence. That’s “democracy.” But the fact is that Supervisors and council members alike are expected to make up their own minds on matters of public concern and cast the deciding votes. Not us. And worse, in the case of the city councils, there are often more people affected by our five member directorate living outside city limits — and therefore without a vote — than living inside.
Because I’m troubled by the lack of democracy in this whole arrangement, moreover, I’m not impressed with your “qualifications”. Let me be perfectly clear where I’m coming from. I have a couple of degrees in something whimsically named “political science.” But I have no doubt that the high school dropout down the road is just as “qualified” as I to grapple with pressing public issues and come to some reasonable decision about how to address them. I also happen to think that the two of us could do this better if we worked on it together, in a public forum.
But we don’t. We sit on our hands, most of the time, while five elected officials bring their prejudices and personalities to bear on issues that concern us all. And that’s the second part of the democratic deficit in this county.
Unlike a lot of folks, who want to blame the citizenry for inaction, I’m not interested in blaming anyone, except maybe the people who built this system. Instead, I’m interested in change. And so I ask, What do our candidates plan to do about the democratic deficit? How do we get beyond resting all decision making action on the persons of a handful of elected officials?
As things stand our representatives can avoid the appearance of personal bias by relying on the experts. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a political debate without someone trotting out expert opinion. The Board of Supes rely on county staff, certified experts in health care, public safety, mental illness, housing — you name it — plus all the State and Federal rules that hedge and bind the county as it tries to act on these and myriad other issues.
In my own Willits (not quite my own, as I’m one of those second-class citizens living outside city limits), the apparently permanent majority makes a show of thumbing their noses at expert opinion, whether it comes from city staff or the experts dragged before the council by concerned citizens in one forlorn effort after another to sway council opinion. No doubt, said council members are responding to populist weariness with rule by the experts. And clearly they are staking out their claim to be Independent Thinkers. But this doesn’t address the democratic deficit, nor shake observers’ worries that personal bias might be all that drives council decision making.
Since none of the candidates has raised the issue of the democratic deficit, and because most of us have become accustomed to the idea that this is the democratic system, it might be worthwhile to offer some hints as to just what might be done.
The Board of Supervisors might, for instance, hold a series of public forums on economic development throughout the county, asking citizens to tell them what might be done to increase economic opportunity, self-reliance and resilience in the county. They would have to pledge to listen quietly, of course, and leave the experts at home.
Or a similar approach might be taken to reviewing county services in a time of failing government revenues. Again, no fanciful and long-winded discourses on pet ideas about how to bring in a few more tax dollars, but a serious look, led by citizens, at what we need and what we need to scale back.
The Willits City Council might want to hold a series of town meetings on transportation, sorting out the issues, coming up with designs to address them, finding ways to do without the genius of CalTrans within the budget available. Council members would have to keep out of the discussion, of course, close their lips and open their ears and let citizens (and second-class citizens) decide what we want and how we want to do it.
How about participatory budgeting? Been tried and succeeded in some of Brazil’s largest cities, not to mention little Vermont. Why not here? Involve the citizenry in town meetings to hammer out the budget, setting priorities, dealing with trade-offs, making the hard decisions.
Just some examples. With all their qualifications, I’m sure our candidates could come up with more. I’m waiting, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone, I’m not alone.
See also Michael Moore: “There’s no Promised Land in America anymore… At what point do people stand up and say ‘Enough!’” In The Souls of the People