A lively, engaged, passionate group of people from government, nonprofits, and education sat down together in San Francisco last week to delve into the pros and cons of restructuring California’s broken governance system, co-sponsored by the San Francisco Urban Research and Planning Association (SPUR).
CA Fwd policy director Richard Raya began by asking: “With more local control, what you would you do to change the way services are provided in your city or county?”
Many people said they liked the idea of local control and accountability, but in practice, it’s a tall order.
“We’ve tried to get agencies to work collaboratively, but this is not easy when you have siloes,” said Sherry Novick, executive director of the First 5 Association. “Turf issues, legal issues – the state needs to set the structure and encourage collaboration.”
“Some of these proposals are a bit naïve,” said the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Randy Rentschler about CA Fwd’s Smart Government Framework. “Too much on the margins. I would encourage you to think big and go for real reform.”
Oakland City Council member Libby Schaff disagreed. “I don’t think these are naïve. I think they are good sense. I think CA Fwd is doing great things, but I am interested in more specifics.”
“Part of the reason that these ideas don’t look big and bold is that they’re basic, common sense ideas,” said Raya. “The state is not working common-sensically right now.”
Following a group discussion, Mariana Moore, director of the Human Services Alliance of Contra Costa, said there are issues that must be addressed, or the plan will fail from the start.
“We need to discuss the expectations for local government,” she said. “Local consolidation can put dedicated funding streams at risk… because some funds have a specific state mandate on how they can be spent.”
Gloria Bruce, deputy director of the East Bay Housing Coalition, said her group was “generally in favor of consolidation when and where it makes sense. In San Mateo County, community colleges are consolidated, but school districts are not, and some have one school in them. Dealing with all of those superintendents doesn’t really make sense.”
“Realignment and consolidation are incredibly difficult when people are thinking about their turf and more focused on what they have to lose, rather than what they have to gain,” Bruce said. “People are not going to give up their turf, unless they get something from it in return.”
“We need to educate the public,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff. “I would love to see as part of the plan some education outreach to the public about what are realistic expectations of what the government can provide at the state, regional, and local level.”
Raya agreed. “Civic engagement is going to be a big part of this. If this is going to work, residents and citizens need to be involved. There needs to be transparency and a strategy for what local government is doing. It’s about bringing people back to the table.”
Novick gave both a caution and a reminder as the process moves forward. “You’re never going to get away from the sometimes ugly sometimes energized political debate,” she said. “I don’t know that we’ll ever have full agreement on what success is. I don’t think we should go into it thinking everyone’s going to go down a cheery path.”