Our Democratic city needs a rebirth of democracy
April 20, 2017
OPINION by STEW JENKINS
Editor’s note: A column by Democrat Stew Jenkins will run in CalCoastNews every other week, rotating with a column by Republican Mike Brown.
I have to start by telling you a story about growing up in the city of San Luis Obispo. My Dad, Starr Jenkins, brought our young family here in 1961 when he landed a job as an English professor at Cal Poly State College.
At the time, SLO had a population of 14,000 people and was simply the least Republican town in a mostly republican county. But there was one Democrat, Donald Q. Miller, who reliably got himself re-elected. Don was a union railroad switchman, ran a union print shop, and was a fiery, populist liberal.
The San Luis Obispo City Council was solidly middle class Republican businessmen, except for Donald Q. Miller. There was an important reason Don always got reelected.
Year in and year out, Don went out of his way to build a personal relationship with every voter in San Luis Obispo. My first memory of San Luis Obispo politics was Donald Q. Miller knocking on our door, like clockwork, every three months to personally ask mom and dad how city services were affecting our neighborhood and what they thought the city could do better. He did this in non-election and election years. Everybody knew Don, and Don knew everybody, the names of their children, and their dogs’ names.
I don’t remember any Republican councilmen being quite so outgoing. But Republican councilmen would mention at meetings problems the city needed to address because folks had come knocking on their doors at home to let them know about those problems.
San Luis Obispo is bigger now. Building personal relationships with all voters in order to actually represent them and actually know what they need has fallen by the wayside.
It need not be that way; and the rest of this commentary reveals a discovery I made on Monday that can help give San Luis Obispo a new burst of representative democracy when I personally delivered a letter to every council member’s home or business.
A council member sent me their first-ever email to chew me out for that personal contact. That letter had pointed out extensive “alternate-facts” our out-of-touch-city-management’s report was feeding the council about the non-discrimination in housing initiative that I am sponsoring.
Instead of thanking me for making sure the letter got to them in time to consider it before the vote, the council member said it was disturbing that their home address was on the letter.
This extra effort to give each council member information and time to consider the fallacies in what institutional management was telling them is what yielded the real eye-opener. Not one of the members of the city council lives in the half of the city covered by the 93405 zip code.
But in San Luis Obispo, people living by Laguna Lake, or north of 101 by San Luis Mountain and Bishops Peak have no one with the connection to their neighborhoods to effectively represent them. Homeowners and renters living over by Cal Poly have no one who can answer the question that Donald Q. Miller always asked: “How are city services affecting our neighborhood and what do you think the city could do better?”
Some will shovel out the fantasy that every council member represents all the residence. But everyone in the Laguna Lake area knows, or will soon know, that this is not true.
Laguna Lake park is the largest park in town, used by people from all over the city. Yet city management has repeatedly prevented needed dredging of Laguna Lake until a funding mechanism can be instituted by forming a special assessment district paid for by only those living in the Laguna Lake area.
The council members, all living on the other side of the freeway, have no information about Laguna Lake residents’ needs to empower those members to resist management’s handwringing. Dredging for flood control, or to preserve the lake for all residents to use is apparently not essential enough for elite managers to apply the Measure G sales tax we voted to pay toward restoring Laguna Lake and its park.
The power of out-of-touch-city-management has no counter weight. No single councilman or councilwoman knows the men and women in those 93405 parts of town sufficiently to stand up for them as a check and balance.
This is easily remedied. According to “suburbanstats.org” the City of San Luis Obispo has a population of 45,119. All that would be needed to return to the days when somebody like Donald Q. Miller knew what you and your neighbors needed the Ccty to do, or not do, is to recognize that our city needs a mayor elected at large, with council members elected from four distinct districts of equal population.
Right now this would give each council member about 12,000 constituents with whom she or he could build those personal relationships on which representative democracy depends.
As the historic character Sicinius asked an assembled crowd of Romans in Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus: What is the city, but the people?
The response of Roman citizens was not unexpected, nor hard to understand. “The people are the city.”
The city of San Luis Obispo is not the elite unelected city management. It is time citizens restore control over their city by adopting a charter amendment to elect individual council members from four separate equally apportioned districts.
I leave CCN readers with a question. If the city council ignores the fact that fully one half of the city is now unrepresented on council, would you support and circulate a charter amendment initiative for the 2018 election?
Stew Jenkins is a San Luis Obispo County Liberal Democrat who supports the rights of working people to organize unions, growing the local economy through project labor agreements, the right of all people to health care and equal dignity.
He is an attorney practicing in San Luis Obispo since 1978. Jenkins’ handles tax payer suits, municipal law, estate planning and family law.