When did being appointed to a local board or commission become socially unacceptable? Why should be elected to a school board make a person politically unacceptable?
According to some recent initiatives, these actions of civic engagement are enough to turn someone into a pariah, unfit for redistricting commissions or constitutional conventions. But this disdain toward anyone whose sense of community service leads them into an official position, is wrong, arrogant and ultimately undemocratic.
Examples of this antagonism are common. Proposition 11, approved last November, created a much-needed independent redistricting commission. But the proponents went over-board in their efforts to keep the commission safe from anyone with actual political experience. Not many would argue against excluding current or former legislators but was it really necessary to exclude someone because their sister-in-law was the vice-chair of the Green Party in Del Norte County or because their father gave $2,000 to the Schwarzenegger campaign in 2003 or because they once served on the State Arts Commission?
The sorry fact is that Proposition 11 regards many ordinary and traditionally esteemed civic activities as unacceptable “conflicts of interest”. Indeed, these activities were deemed so heinous that the protective cocoon of Prop 11 extends ten years back and covers siblings, children and in-laws.
Another current proposal defines as unacceptably tainted anyone who since 2005 has held any local, state or federal appointed or elective position. A minister asked to serve on a county human rights commission – obviously a political hack. A parent whose long work with their local PTA leads to running for school board – another hack. A businessperson who volunteers to serve on a city’s budget advisory commission – clear corruption.
There are more than 10,000 Californians elected by the voters to county, city, school district and special district positions and many times that of ordinary citizens serving on local boards and commissions (Anaheim has five elected officials and 78 citizens on boards and commissions; Antioch has 5 elected and 50 citizen commission members). When did they turn into pariahs? What is going on here?
Some reformers tend to think that all elected officials are entrenched political elites, which is simply wrong. The L.A. Board of Supervisors doesn’t have much turnover but LA is not the universe. The fact is that there is considerable turn-over in county, city and school district elected positions. Since 1996 the California Election Data Archive at Sacramento State has tracked local election results and over that period only 52% of winning candidates were incumbents. Thus 48% of those elected to local office were non-incumbents. Local incumbents are usually successful but every two years thousands decide not to seek reelection, opening seats to newcomers.
Turnover in Sacramento is mandatory and has been since 1990 and the passage of term limits. One candidate for governor has called for a part-time legislature to break up Sacramento’s entrenched office-holders. Apparently the candidate isn’t aware that of the 80 state Assembly members, 27 have been in office for a shorter period than he has and another 33 have been in office as long as he has. Indeed, in the entire Assembly, only three members have more than five years experience.
Arrogance is the second explanation of this aversion. Some of the people behind these proposals are Jeffersonian purists who believe in the “people” (who, of course, are different than the “people” who vote scum bags into office) and believe equally that they are the best representative of the people. A few clearly regard themselves as ethically superior beings; platonic philosopher kings who know better than the easily deceived dupes who vote and the miscreants who are voted into office.
The fundamental problem with this disdain is that it is undemocratic. One cannot proclaim elected officials, their staffs and citizens serving on public boards and commissions as corrupt without simultaneously sending the message that elections and civic engagement are corrupting. When a ballot measure declares that a member of the Madera County Fair Board is not fit to draw legislative district lines or a member of the Santa Paula Union High School District should not be allowed to help revise the constitution, the message is clear, if perhaps unintended: civic engagement is bad, public service is undesirable and elections are worthless.
I would suggest we start saying no to the zealots and their determination to exorcise the civic minded. California needs fundamental reform but it doesn’t need reform driven by snobbery that under mines belief in democracy and the results of democracy. To paraphrase a scene from A Man for All Seasons when Thomas More chides his son-in-law for disdaining the law,
“What would you do? Cut a great road of disdain through democracy to get at your reform? And when the last elected official is vilified and the last appointee slandered, who then will believe that your election is legitimate, that your appointees are different?
The writer, Tim Hodson, is from the Center for California Studies, Sacramento State University. To read more, visit Fox & Hounds Daily.