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Local Government Corruption

By LeRoy Chatfield

There is a good-government theory, which states that the government closest to the people – for example, city councils, school boards, county boards of supervisors – is government that works best because it is the most responsive to the people it represents.

I could not agree less. Local government, in my experience, is less responsive, less transparent, less accountable, and less open than either state or federal governments. In addition, because of the lack of any meaningful oversight, local government is more prone to cutting corners, acting deceitfully, engaging in insider trading, acting arrogantly, and fostering pissant forms of corruption.

Assuming what I have said to be true, and I strongly believe it to be so, why should this be the case? How can the theory of the “closeness” of government to the people be so far off the mark in the reality of our daily lives?

One reason, I believe, is the lack of media interest, especially in a one-newspaper town. Perhaps it was different when the first local government textbooks were written, but in this day and age, news is first and foremost entertainment, and truth to tell, local government is boring, and then again, more boring. To be sure, the local newspaper provides some weekly coverage, but nothing penetrating, investigative, or questioning. Rather, it waits for the occasional, but inevitable, example of semi-sensational corruption – shoddy fiscal management leading to huge cost overruns or a million-dollar out-of-court legal settlement. These kinds of local government stories are splashed about for a day or two in both the news and editorial sections, but by the third day are forever classified as old news, news without any entertainment value.

Local government itself is hip to transforming its actions into old news. The meetings are held in the evening and frequently extend to nearly midnight, long after the deadlines for the local newspaper and the evening’s TV news. So what appears – only in the newspaper – the following morning is a short, abbreviated report of what happened until, let’s say 9 p.m. That’s the independent oversight reporting for the week; whatever transpired after the news deadline is classified as old news.

Beyond the lack of media interest is the fact that local government meetings are little more than public theatre presentations. All the debate, the trade-offs, the deals, and the straw votes have been taken long before the public meeting itself. The so-called public forum – receiving staff reports, taking public testimony, and engaging in open discussion – is little more than a charade. Elected local government officials act out their roles for the sake of the public record and for a handful of citizens in attendance, but the outcome is preordained and the tally of final votes is little more than a formality.

On its face, the lack of citizen interest in local government seems incredible. Local government affects almost everything about our day-to-day living: zoning, taxes, schools, social services, permits, parks, recreation, parking, environment, safety – this is the stuff of the grind of daily living, raising a family, experiencing a quality of life, or the conditions to be endured under a fixed-income retirement. Incredible or not, civic participation in local government barely registers even on election days.

Given this indifference and apathy, it is not surprising that local government seizes upon its regulatory authority to control its constituency – fines for violations are simply another form of taxation, and to collect these taxes even more regulatory police enforcement is necessary. Because of the lack of civic oversight or citizen push back, local government feels free to exempt itself from the very regulations it imposes so freely and with impunity on the citizenry; which in turn leads to secretiveness, manipulation, and fraud – all forms of government corruption.

This was the case with the decision to redesign and refurbish a major municipal golf course in Sacramento. Under the guise of a state mandate that prohibited any future purchases of gas-powered golf carts by public or private golf courses, the city decided to build a cart-charging/storage facility to house newly purchased electric golf carts as part of the proposed golf course reconstruction project. However, the unstated and unpublished purpose of this new facility was to house golf course administration offices. To avoid its own regulations, including public review, the city labeled the building on the EIR site plan as a “storage facility,” with the idea that after it was built, golf course employees would convert – “in house,” as they say – a major portion of the building into golf course offices.

The city built the storage facility without building permits, without design review, without the environmental permits needed to cut down heritage trees, without construction contracts, without building plans, and without publicly approved financing. More than a million dollars of golf course reconstruction bond funds were spent on an unapproved, substandard behemoth building, which could not pass the city’s own building department inspection. When the money ran out and there were no other city bond funds to tap, the wheels came off the project and a local TV news station and the daily newspaper splashed the story. As you might expect, local government officials said they “knew nothing.” It came as a complete shock, they said; a full investigation would be made. Months later, when the coast was clear, the city appropriated several million dollars to rebuild this huge eyesore of a warehouse building to meet city building codes.

I knew better. Using the state’s Freedom of Information Act for access, I took it upon myself to investigate all the city documents and correspondence made available to me by the city attorney’s office. It took almost a week to sort through it all and figure out what had happened, who was involved, and how it happened. I packaged up my findings in a long letter, which I sent to the mayor and each member of the city council – a total of nine elected local government officials.

I might as well have sent my letter to Santa Claus. I received not a single reply, not even an acknowledgment that any one of the elected officials had even received my letter. In effect, I had publicly accused my elected local government officials of fraud and corruption, and silence was their response. If my charges were far-fetched and baseless, I would have expected that at least one of the council members would have taken issue or demanded an apology, or perhaps asked for more information, but no, nothing.

I sent a copy of my report to the two newspaper reporters who had written the previous articles when the public scandal was first exposed. They were excited to receive it – at least, they sounded excited and even giddy on the telephone – but later, one of the reporters told me that the golf cart barn story had “no traction” with his editors.

I can only conclude, and I did so, that the council members themselves – despite their protestations to the contrary in the media – had been fully briefed and had been aware of the city’s illegal activity, but when the story broke, they decided en masse to stonewall the public scandal through the strategy of silence. Sure enough, within a day or two after the original story hit the local newspaper, the entire issue became old news and lacked any further media entertainment value



Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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