Much like the evolution of species can take eons, sometimes the wheels of reform in local government can be pragmatically deliberate. At other times, like when a meteor annihilated the dinosaurs, comprehensive reform can come so fast it makes a recalled councilman or fired city official wonder what happened.
Few cities, except maybe Bell, were in as desperate of need of meteoric reform as Hercules. The city once appeared vibrant, growing, and financially stable. Yet, as the state’s auditors dig through the scraps of evidence available, we’re beginning to understand the depths of the deceit and dysfunction that pushed the Bay Area city to the brink of collapse.
Whether or not the downfall of Hercules began with its former city manager, Nelson Oliva, is yet to be seen. For too many years, his iron-fist dictated the action of a series of rubber-stamp city councils.
For 4 years, from 2007 to 2011, the city council never once went against Oliva’s wishes. Of some 1079 votes taken during that time, 1078 were unanimous. None were debated. They approved his resolutions, approved his ordinances, approved his budgets.
Those budgets included lies – blatant, unconscionable, and potentially deliberate fabrications. From a $25 million general fund budget, one budget overstated revenues by $12 million. That’s 40 percent. No action was taken when the city overpaid two payrolls by more than $50,000. It’s been three years.
According to the state’s audit report, the city was run as an unaccounted slush fund, with no internal or external controls and no safe guards against abuse. Virtually no records were kept.
There were some bright spots along the way. Charlie Long served as interim city manager and was essential to the ultimate discovery and correction of so many wrongs. For his work, he was fired.
Eventually, the meteor fell. When it impacted the city of 25,000, it wiped out three city council members – two were recalled, one resigned office before being publicly humiliated by an overwhelming vote for recall. The city manager was fired, sued, and may face criminal prosecution.
In their places arose the leadership of Hercules’ future – a new finance director, a new city manager, a new city council, and real policies to protect residents.
You may call what happened in Hercules a ‘Mini-Bell.’ It may be.
You may call what happened an example of government gone wrong. It was.
And I may describe its downfall and rebirth as Municipal Darwinism – where the trash that once tried to run a city into the ground for their own personal, financial gain eventually self-selects for extinction.
Whatever it may be, the fall from grace suffered by Nelson Oliva and his rubber stamp council could be rightly attributed to the righteous hand of the Almighty.
To Oliva and his cronies: Enjoy the Woolly Mammoth. Watch out for the Dinosaurs. And I hope you feel right at home with your closest relatives: the Dodo birds.