Michael Foley: Don’t Tell Me ‘Bout Your Qualifications


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


Jonathan Middlebrook October 17, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Good season for thinking about democracy. I made a longish comment on Herb Ruh’s 15 October piece on Tyranny & hope you’ll (all) look at piece + comment & perhaps begin a conversation.

–Conceptually, a first step is decoupling voting from democracy. Voting is just an instrumentality, probably smashed by Mr. Chief Justice Roberts’ Supreme Court with the Citizens United ruling. Democracy (not voting itself)is the goal for all of us as yet not on multinational corporate boards of directors.

I personally favor a civic lottery as instrumentality for democracy. It worked for a while in classical Athens, a polity about as populous as Mendocino County (though about 2/5 our land area).

Briefly, every citizen is enrolled in a pool. If his/her number is drawn, s/he’s it, for (say) a 2-year term. “It” is membership in our local legislature–somewhere around 100 people, who would debate an agenda, make directives to county departments, hire/evaluate/fire department heads, etc. Debate is key: the legislators hear each other’s arguments in full, not sound-bitten. Then they vote, representing the county. After a term of service, no one could serve a second term for 10 years, though s/he might be well qualified to be an advisor to the sitting legislators, by preparing position papers, etc.

A civic lottery is a better way to get a democracy for 85,000 people than voting.

–Cheaper too. The $60 grand or so spent on the 5th district campaigns could have been better spent at the Libraries and Plowshares.

I’m glad to be able to let Ukiah Blog readers know that Holly Madrigal is on the record as supporting “participatory budgeting.” From her Issues statement, first posted on her web site and Facebook page in March:

“BUDGETING & FINANCE: Explore alternative revenue generation, an even-handed approach to salaries, and strong protection of county resources.

· Include public input on the current fiscal crisis: Mendocino County deserves a more democratic approach and participatory budgeting that fosters local buy-in for the difficult choices ahead.

· Investigate creative solutions for revenue generation: Support our economic base through a local purchasing ordinance and streamlining of the building and permit process to improve county revenue sources.”



Holly has also addressed the “democratic deficit” by holding “office hours” on Thursday afternoons at the Farmers Market in Willits for several years now to hear ideas from citizens about all kinds of issues. Again, from her Issues statement:

“· Expand my accessibility: Continue to hold community “office hours” at least once a month in Willits, and expand to Covelo and Laytonville, to directly hear and address concerns of constituents.”

Holly also addressed participatory budgeting in a letter to the editor printed in the Ukiah Daily Journal and other local papers in February (the Willits News won’t print letters from “candidate” Holly; only letters that are directly related to her role as a City Councilmember). Some excerpts from that letter, “Time to Answer Questions”:

“Yes, let’s set up “a committee of qualified citizens along with appropriate staff and two Supervisors to determine the best way to solve this crisis and create a sustainable budget for the future,” and with meetings held in public. One of my platform planks in my campaign for 3rd District supervisor is: “Include public input on the current fiscal crisis: Mendocino County deserves a more democratic approach and participatory budgeting that fosters local buy-in for the difficult choices ahead.”

“But will a committee be enough?

“UDJ Sunday View columnist Mark Scaramella joins the Farm Bureau in a call for implementing what he describes as “basic management reporting and information systems” not in use in county government today, but Scaramella goes further to suggest a citizens audit of larger county departments, using what he calls “tiger teams” of “local retirees and volunteers to scrutinize each departmental budget and provide clear information and recommendations.” Citizen auditors charged with evaluating specific departments could be a good idea: who gets to choose the “tigers”? is one question, and will qualified citizens step forward? is another.”

— Thanks for the opportunity to point out these positions taken by Holly during her campaign. Jennifer Poole, Friends of Holly Madrigal for 3rd District Supervisor

Michael is right on. So is Jonathan. If we’re trusted to make life and death decisions on juries, why not on government issues. One supervisor candidate is advertising that he intends to protect government employee salaries, retirement, and perks. As Anderson in the AVA points out, those salaries and perks are way out of line with others in the county. But, as Marlene points out to me, those are the candidate’s supporters. So, the rule is, fire the workerbees and keep the bosses, who are doing what for their money? So, I can’t vote for the sales tax, because I know where it’s going. As Anderson recommends,vote against all incumbents; I would add, all those who have previously had their feet in government as well. The anarchist curmudgeon

Am I reading this right. It seems like a direct attack on representative democracy. If you haven’t noticed, warts and all, our county is one of the few places in the country where it is still working. If Michael thinks he has good ideas, he should work within the system to promote them.

    Jonathan Middlebrook October 19, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Ron–Voting is not the same thing as democracy. Voting is one way of achieving democracy, and buying votes by stupefying the electorate with millions of anonymous dollars of sound-bites & bytes (a la radical right)is a direct attack on voting as a way to representative democracy.

    A legislature chosen by lot from all the electorate is another way to achieve representative democracy, as it did for a while in democratic Athens.

    Beware the grand name (“democracy”) without the grand thing (democracy).



Ron, haven’t you noticed how uninterested the supervisors are in anything the public has to say? Haven’t you noticed how “representative” boards around this county prostrate themselves before administrators, as the supervisors have? Anyone who attempts to modify the system is just another of those troublemakers. I’m very grateful for Anderson and the AVA keeping tabs on this. This county is sick to death, as is the state and country, with special interests, specifically government employees, professional “representatives,” and the few wealthy, dominating our lives – look around. True, the county is too big for true democracy. Let’s solve it. A much larger more representative board of supervisors chosen by lottery would be a start.

Ron’s wrong. It was an indirect attack on representative democracy, which today, in this country, is neither representative nor democracy. Rather than propose a thorough-going democracy, which would be impossible, as Don points out, even at the county level, I merely suggested that our representatives make an attempt to involve we the people in the decision making process by, OMG, listening to us.

And yes, we could make this place at least a bit more democratic than it is.

jonathan middlebrook October 22, 2010 at 8:49 pm

“a thorough-going democracy, which would be impossible . . . even at the county level . . .”.–Why impossible, at the county level?

About 46,000 registered voters in Mendocino County, which is pretty close to estimates of the number of Athenian citizens.

If our 46,000 were placed in a lottery & 1/200 of them were selected for limited terms as legislators, who would debate local laws & hire/evaluate/fire department heads, etc. we’d have a representative democracy.

The debate among the 1/200 is a crucial part of the idea–no more sound bites. Rather, a representative body, listening to reasoned argument (or to argument, anyway) and making decisions. Corporate blandishment and bribery might decrease, or at least become the subject of discussion: “Mr. Adams, can you tell us what Mr. Goldfine expected in return for the vicuna coat he gave you?”