Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Wanted: Qualified civil servants

I spent nearly two years covering county boards and city councils in California before returning to Arizona in September.

My first impression was there are some good people doing thankless jobs as civil servants, and I’m not just talking about the city managers who rake in big money to baby sit elected officials. There were many supervisors and council members who impressed me with their integrity and commitment to sound public policy.

On the other hand, I found there are so few people qualified to serve on a board with such wide-reaching governing powers. Often, these officials are led by the nose by municipal managers who look down on elected officials, and end up establishing most key pieces of policy for a public in which they do not share a common zip code. The problem with policy in the areas I covered wasn’t typically self-interested power brokers as much as it was contracted employees guiding elected officials to a position that had little to do with the best long-term interest of the people who elected them.

This is especially true in less populated areas. I covered one county that was regularly at the bottom of California’s revenue barrel. Its leaders were bright people whose expertise rested solely in agriculture and agribusiness. On the rare occasion a big developer rolled into a meeting, their high-dollar lawyers were usually allowed to roll over the board. Things like necessary infrastructure and per-capita education standards were often overlooked due to the naiveté of the appointed members of the planning and zoning commission. By the time it got to the board, every presentation highlighted immediate big dollar revenue returns and expertly downplayed the lack of state-mandated acreage for a necessary K-8 school or the fact the aging town did not have the utility infrastructure in place to serve so many new people.

So in a high-growth cycle like this past real estate explosion, housing developments were approved in areas where things like roads and drainage hadn’t been improved in 60 or 70 years. Environmental impact studies were rubber-stamped because of a dire shortage of people who understood such a technical field. Houses were built within sneezing distance of riparian reserves and active agricultural fields that would later cause great consternation for the state water and environmental agencies. Schools were instantly overcrowded and, with the school district not involved enough to recognize they needed to double impact fees, no funds were readily available to do anything about it for years down the road.

I’m no liberal, but this is a compounded problem when said county boards and city councils are flooded by well-meaning pro-growth members without an understanding of the process. They only see the immediate benefits of revenue generated by new homeowners. They don’t see the long-term costs of roads and schools and utility infrastructure, not to mention areas nearing build out without a strong retail and commercial base. They don’t think about measuring the liability of putting in 300 new golf-course lot homes 1.5 miles downwind from a mushroom processing plant.

As a journalist, I was frustrated with the knowledge of dozens of active or retired engineers living in the area without a modicum of interest in public service. We had two former city managers from other areas who wanted nothing to do with municipal government. There were three former corporate executives who loved to criticize political decisions from the golf course but could never be found at a meeting.

Without mentioning names, I get sort of the same vibe from many bloggers, a great number of which are professionals with extensive knowledge and experience that could be utilized on a local regulatory board or city council or county board. However, I have yet to come across a blog post about someone mentioning their experience in municipal government. Considering the weight and volume with which so many criticize government, it seems a tad hypocritical to me.

I don’t mean to downplay busy lives. If you’re spending time with your kids so they won’t carjack me in 18 years, I applaud you. However, I do think the educated classes owe something to their local government beyond thinking up new ways to get out of jury duty.

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