“Think globally, act globally” is not playing so well in the city of Richmond these days.
The classic adage — first coined maybe a century ago (no one knows for sure) — encourages communities, individuals and local governments to break down big worldwide issues and attempt to address them from “the bottom up,” so to speak. These most frequently involve saving the environment: Banning plastic bags; recycling mandates; special disposal for electronic waste and the like.
But pursuing solutions to global issues looks a lot less attractive when it comes at the expense of meeting local needs. Just ask the residents of Richmond, California. The headline on page 1 in the Contra Costa Times of Saturday, March 1st, 2014 summed it up perfectly:
‘Global agenda’ irritates residents. City’s plans draw national attention, but many want local issues to be priority’
Since the election of Green Party candidate Mayor Gayle McLaughlin in 2006, the Richmond City Council seems to have been singularly bent on taking on the mega-issues facing the country: Childhood obesity and saving peoples’ homes from foreclosure being two most prominent examples.
Granted, childhood obesity clearly is a national problem, as is people losing their homes to foreclosures. The question is: What can a city government do about this, and at what cost? And should a city government be devoting time and scarce resources to these global and national issues?
To a growing number of Richmond residents, the answer seems to be “no.”
The Contra Costa Times March 1st article cites Richmond citizens clearly perturbed by their City Council pursuing soda taxes and trying to seize underwater mortgages while the City’s public housing units degenerate and decay. The city’s port, long an under-performer, has been called “mismanaged” by a city audit. There is a high degree of dissension in the Police Department, with the Richmond Police Officers union recently taking the Chief of Police to court. Parts of Richmond remain more lethal than the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Citizens are beginning to question the pursuit of global problems while local needs continue to deteriorate and go unmet.
At least one Richmond City Councilmember agrees. Councilmember Nat Bates is quoted in the article as saying: “Government is not operating well in some respects. While we are pursuing these national headlines, the simple chores of day-to-day government are left unattended.”
Richmond’s Sister City relationships are another example. These relationships are actually fairly common in many cities, but now even that seemingly-innocuous program is being questioned.
Years ago I approached then-Emeryville City Manager John Flores about Emeryville establishing a sister city relationship. My thought was that Hong Kong would be a good choice, considering the similarities between that city and Emeryville: Small, pro-business, entrepreneurial enclaves surrounded by larger, socialist entities. John was singularly unenthusiastic about the idea, citing the cost and bureaucracy of establishing and maintaining such a relationship, and we let the idea die.
Richmond is a great example of why John Flores was correct. The Times’ article cites Richmond city officials spending close to $50,000 in taxpayer-financed trips to sister cities in Japan, China and Cuba. Not sure what was accomplished on those trips — other than having a really nice time — and I’ll bet many Richmond residents could have found a much better and more productive use for that 50 grand.
We are fortunate in Emeryville. Our City Council has a long history and tradition of shunning the pursuit of exotic and esoteric causes in favor of making sure local needs are taken care of. Years ago, when Congress was debating the PATRIOT Act, the Emeryville City Council considered a resolution opposing it. Not establishing an Advisory Commission, not traveling to Washington to complain, no ordinance making Emeryville a “PATRIOT Act Free Zone” or any other such weirdness. Just a simple paper resolution expressing opposition.
Even that simple act resulted in a considerable amount of thought and almost apologetic-like discussion among the Councilmembers, including statements like “We traditionally don’t waste time on things like this” and other such disclaimers. The resolution opposing the PATRIOT Act eventually did pass, unanimously, and that was the end of it. Then it was back to the business of taking care of municipal needs. This, to me, was a seminal moment for us City Council watchers, and is emblematic of what cities today should — and should not — be spending their time on.
So, what lessons have can we take from the Richmond experience? Several:
–Governments cannot solve all of life’s problems. Passing laws, appropriating money and assigning staff to tackle issues has its limits — at all levels of government.
–Local government works best when it sticks to what it was meant to do: Provide local services and take care of local needs.
–Government decision making is by definition the art of allocating resources. Governments at all levels face unlimited demands, but are constrained by limited resources. The art of government decision making is doing the best job of matching the allocation of limited resources to the unlimited demands.
Richmond again proves this last point. The City Council’s surreal attempts to seize mortgages via eminent domain has “…consumed dozens of hours of Council meeting times, drawn lawsuits from Wall Street and made it harder for the city to borrow money on the bond market,” according to the Contra Costa Times March 1st article.
[For those of you who have been around the East Bay for a while, this is reminiscent of the City of Oakland’s ill-fated attempt to eminent domain the Oakland Raiders when Al Davis announced in 1979 that he was moving the team to Los Angeles. Yes, you read that correctly: The City of Oakland actually went to court to seize a National Football League franchise via eminent domain, and after losing at every step of the judicial process, the Council even had the chutzpah to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Needless to say, the Court tossed out the City’s case – after the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars – and Mr. Davis sent his team into exile in Los Angeles for most of the decade of the ‘80’s, only to return to Oakland in 1990].
In Emeryville, we’ll leave rescuing polar bears, supporting the aspirations of the ethnic groups looking for a homeland and stopping the construction of hydroelectric dams in China to the Berkeleys, Richmonds and Santa Monicas of the world. Government leaders in Emeryville long ago understood that scarce and tough-to-generate resources need to be allocated where they are intended and where they can provide real results: To public safety, parks and recreation programs, keeping our streets paved and sidewalks in good repair and making sure the trash is picked up, the street lights work and those beautiful street medians are planted and maintained. Other cities in the Bay Area would do well to follow this example.
Bob Canter is the President & CEO of the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce