Tuesday, October 11, 2011

You Just Gotta Love Those Folks in Gubmint

Remember the old saying “Think global; act local”. I’ve always been a believer in that. Take a look at what the world needs and then do something in your little corner of the world to make it happen. Touch the lives of people who are your neighbors. If we could, or would, do that, we could change this big old world in no time flat.

So, when an opportunity presented itself here in Vista, California, I volunteered. Here’s my tale of adventure and woe.

I live in an apartment with my wife on the edge of an area known as the Townsite Neighborhood. Whenever the local newspaper prints a story about something happening in our neighborhood, it invariably uses the description “hardscrabble Townsite Neighborhood”.

Redevelopment in an area like this is a good thing. When the City extended its redevelopment district boundaries 3 years ago, it had to form a “Project Area Committee” to provide advice and feedback to the City Council about the area and improvement projects—known as Redevelopment Community Improvement Projects.

In late June I was looking for the dates of a particular community celebration and happened into the City’s website. While there I came across a listing for a vacancy on the Project Area Committee (PAC). It was a seat specified for a “residential tenant”. In other words, a renter. Hey that’s me! I’d love to do that.

You see, I spent over 15 years doing this type of work—community and economic development. I’ve done redevelopment planning. I’ve set up TIF districts—especially in industrial parks to create new manufacturing jobs. I have huge empathy for the people who live in my neighborhood and would like to see our local government do a better job of serving their interests. I was a natural.

So I filled out the application. And I was accepted (actually I think I was the only person who volunteered—let’s be honest here). I was invited to the committee’s July meeting (They meet every other month for an hour and a half. That should have been a red flag).

The committee meets in a meeting room in the City's 1-year old $55 million City Hall right on the edge of our "hardscrabble" neighborhood. We call it the Taj Mahal. It was financed by a local sales tax imposed by the City.

I sat through the entire meeting, listening (not my greatest skill) to the discussion and keeping my mouth shut (again not one of my greatest skills). I sat next to a man who had taken to time to go out into our neighborhood and photograph areas that have no sidewalks and streets that have crumbling asphalt. Yeah, there’s a chunk of this area that’s run-down and neglected.

And I’m thinking to myself, “Self, this could be interesting”. Then it came time to introduce me (the very last item on the agenda) and tell a little bit about myself. I told the members of the committee—property owners, renters, Chamber of Commerce members all from this neighborhood—a bit about myself and a tongue in cheek summary of some of the things I had done in the City in the 6+ years I’ve lived here.

I managed to get a stripe painted on a street (what I asked for was a street light at a dangerously dark corner). I managed to get the fences fixed at the nearby athletic fields of a junior high school so people couldn’t trespass (what I asked for was for the gates to be left open so people could continue to use the football field for pick-up soccer games). And I’ve managed to get a half dozen higher end cars towed from our street at a community festival earlier this summer and then a “no parking anytime” sign posted. When all I wanted was to get the cars ticketed for hindering traffic. Heads bobbed up and down—hmmm they’ve heard of me. In fact, one of the committee members commented, “oh, so you’re the guy…” Yep, that’s me.

They vote me onto the committee and I have to stand up and take an oath of office pledging to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. OK fine, it’s a bit odd but I’ll do it—yep I just renewed my social contract, this time officially.

So, I’m waiting for the next meeting. Hmmmm, there’s no follow-up generated from the previous meeting. There’s no communication from city staff. What kind of committee is this? Well, it’s a city committee. It fulfills a legal requirement. Does the City really want it to actually DO something? The notion that it meets for an hour and a half every two months should have been a hint.

Well, about a week before the next meeting—I still haven’t received minutes of the previous meeting or an agenda for the coming meeting—I got a call from the Redevelopment and Housing Director of the City. He’s calling to inform me that the required 3 year term of this committee expires at the end of the month and that the coming meeting would likely be the final meeting of the committee. What?!? I just got on the damn committee. I’m just getting going.

He told me that the City Council could, at its discretion, extend the PAC for an additional year. “OK,” I thought, “we can just get the council to do that.” But, the Director told me, staff is recommending that it not be extended in order to save money.

“And why not,” I asked.
“Cost saving in the budget,” I am told.

Rather than belaboring this further, let’s advance to the next, and final, meeting of the PAC. As they say in government, “discussion ensued”. The 2 staff members from the City re-iterated their recommendation that the PAC be allowed to “just fade away”. And they renewed their reasoning that the statutory requirement had been met and that it was a cost saving measure.

Ever the skeptic, I asked these 2 gentlemen just how much would be saved from the budget by the demise of this group. They didn’t know.

“Wait a minute,” I started up—starting to head toward righteous indignation. “You’re both professional staff members of this department (actually the top 2 guys) and you’re saying that the reason for eliminating this group is for budget savings but you don’t know how much you’ll save? It would seem to me that if you’re making this argument that you would have run at least a rudimentary time and motion analysis to be able to estimate how much it’s costing.”

The 2 guys looked at each other. Their lips got tight. They had no response. I managed to keep my mouth shut as other discussion ensued.

The long and short of it was that eventually I made a motion to recommend that the City Council extend the committee for a year. The committee delegated to me the task of communicating the committee’s position to the Council. I wrote a short, impassioned letter about volunteers volunteering for additional service.

The Council vote was unanimous. The Project Area Committee was allowed to sink into the oblivion of its 3 year term. Of course, the City’s motion thanked us for our service.

Service? What service? I was only on it for one entire meeting and the last 5 minutes of another. Crap.

Just as I was getting over it, a large flat envelope arrived in the mail from the City. The cynic in me said, “looks like a certificate”. This morning I opened it. It was a form. The form was accompanied by a letter. The letter said that the form was a Statement of Economic Interests Form 700 from the California Fair Political Practices Commission. I have to fill it out. And supposedly list all financial interests I have including stocks and 401k, etc. It is a required form when someone “leaves office”.

Office? I didn’t have an office. I was on a committee. And I served for 2 months.

Here I was, expecting a certificate of appreciation and service. What I got was a state form to make sure that I didn’t profit from my long service on the committee. Remember the scene from “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie gets his secret decoder ring along with a certificate conferring “honors and benefits”. When he discovers that the “secret message” is really a commercial for Ovaltine he says “son of a bitch”!

I had hopeful expectations about being able to, in some small way, do some good for my neighborhood and community. “Son of a bitch.”

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