We’re talking experience at the local level.

Jack Simpson has worked in city government for more than 30 years.

PublicCEO.com caught up with Simpson to get his take on the current condition of local government, his memories as a city manager and more. Simpson talks about his frustrations with the state government and its role in controlling the purse strings of local government.

For 25 of those years, Simpson served as City Manager or City Administrator for the cities of Hawaiian Gardens, Paramount and Bellflower. Simpson then worked for Consolidated Disposal Services and later as the chief marketing official for a major California public agency consulting firm.

These days, Simpson and his wife, Susan, operate Trackdown Management Services, distributing a monthly City Manager Newsletter by Trackdown.  Access to all issues is free on the Trackdown Management Service Web site: www.trackdownmanagement.net.

What was your biggest challenge as a city manager?

City management is a challenging and rewarding craft.  I was able to work with city councils to build two new city halls and remodel another.  In each case, financing major projects are always challenging.  With today’s “short time” legislators there is no depth of history in any arena, and financing local government continues to be a challenge.

Have you seen big changes in local government in your 30-plus years?

Absolutely there are changes, but the bottom line “that the state” has control of the purse strings remains the same.  Cities, counties, school districts, specials districts and every other kind of local government has always had to worry about the State Legislature diverting revenue.  

Traditionally, when the Legislature spends beyond its means – state revenues – it reaches into the coffers on local government.  It is somewhat worse these days, because of the lack of historical institutional knowledge in the Legislature.  

Today, an Assembly Member only has six years to serve.  They do not have time to learn.  They have to hit the ground running, especially if they want to build a record that will allow a successful campaign for the Senate or some Constitutional office.  Term limits is at the foundation of why California’s governmental system is broken.

Is local government heading in a positive direction, or have those changes made local government worse off?

Local government is still the most democratic of our governmental institutions, even though they are watchfully dependent on the whims of the Legislature.  Citizens can easily visit their city halls and meet with their locally elected officials.  

Local government is required by the State Government to conduct its’ business in open public meetings unlike the State Legislature. 

Legislators meet and act behind closed doors.  The majority party has caucus meetings, where legislation and policy is decided on, without any access to the meetings by the public or media.  State Legislators would have you believe that local government officials are not to be trusted and must be required to meeting pursuant to the Brown Act.  However, they are beyond Brown Act requirements. 

They act in private and secrecy.  It makes it tough for local government to know what is going on until whatever it is has already happened.

Term limits, as they are presently required, are bad.  They guarantee that we try to operate one of the largest and most complex economies in the world with a group of inexperienced rookies.  None of our most successful private industry corporations would ever consider such a system.

Within this forum – with an ability to talk to city managers throughout California – do you have any advice to help them steer their local governments in the right direction?

Local government officials need to be watchful of State Government actions.  Legislators almost act in a vacuum with no one watching their actions.  They must be held accountable, and they must realize that local people are watching them.

How would you handle the current challenges of a state budget that is hurting local government’s ability to operate?

The State needs to focus on State expenditures and revenues.  They should trust that the democratic process on the local level will work.  Local government actions are taken close to their constituents and improprieties are easily seen and acted on at the next election.  

The only long-term economic stimulus program that has been successful in California is the Redevelopment Agency process.  It operates on the local level, and the State should butt out!  Redevelopment Agencies have created more jobs and brought more improvements to our communities than any state program –  ever.  

However, the Governor and the Legislature continues to lick their chops over the “well-financed” local redevelopment agency programs.  The State needs to leave redevelopment alone.  

You can read more from Jack Simpson in his City Manager newsletter at  www.trackdownmanagement.net.