Sunday, June 8, 2014

Marin Voice: Marin cities are giving up local control

Susan Kirsch, a longtime resident of Mill Valley,
 is one of the founders of 
Citizen Marin

See Marin IJ: Marin Voice: Marin cities are giving up local control

By Susan Kirsch
Guest op-ed column
Posted: 10/23/2013 08:08:00 PM PDT

CITIZENS in Corte Madera, Larkspur, Mill Valley, Novato and San Rafael have candidates who are vying for city council.

The candidates bring impressive credentials as incumbents, attorneys, citizen activists and businessmen and women. Their campaign literature stresses their commitment to fixing potholes, bike and pedestrian safety, prudent fiscal management, schools, and other local issues.

But besides being on the city council, voters need to picture candidates sitting on one of the many regional boards and agencies that make decisions with far-reaching impacts.
Since 1963, when the California Legislature authorized Local Agency Formation Commissions, cities have collaborated to provide services such as fire, water and sanitation. Later, similar type agencies, Joint Power Authorities, also formed to carry out other functions.

The governing structure for LAFCO and JPA boards usually includes one or more city council members (chosen by the city council or the county council of council members), one or more county supervisors (chosen by the supervisors) and occasionally a politically appointed public representative.

So while candidates may have knowledge and experience about local matters, they now also sit on JPA boards that make decisions about complex issues like land-use and planning (the Association of Bay Area Governments), transportation (the Transportation Authority of Marin) and energy contracts (the Marin Energy Authority).

This has proven to be problematic.

JPAs have diminished transparency and undermined local control.

Here are three examples:

ABAG was justifiably criticized for manipulating facts, figures and processes related to the passing of Plan Bay Area. But they claim they don't undercut local control because every city has a representative to ABAG. However, local ABAG representatives rarely, if ever, effectively communicated with local citizens about ABAG's policies, plans and decisions. In fact, local reps only officially meet once a year when they vote on ABAG's budget.

TAM is another example of a JPA governed by selected city council members and supervisors, whose judgment is questionable.

TAM engaged in a 10-year, $9 million planning process to design the Greenbrae-Twin Cities freeway project, without results.

Eventually, it took the efforts of a roll-up-your-sleeves Working Group to reject the Caltrans $143 million plan and replace it with a more balanced recommendation, at greatly reduced taxpayer expense.

Then there is Marin Clean Energy, a public power agency theoretically governed by representatives from each of Marin's 11 municipalities and the supervisors. At MEA meetings, you'll find staff and experts talking at length, using acronyms, facts and figures, while its board members scratch their heads, wading through reams of information they know little about.

When called on to vote, they usually just follow the recommendations of the highly compensated experts and staff.

Each time a council member retires, JPAs lose organizational history and know-how, which further empowers staff and consultants, to the detriment of the public. Except for San Rafael Councilman Damon Connolly, MEA has had the entire board turnover in less than five years.

This considered, there are at least three questions voters should ask candidates about JPAs.

• JPAs are often seen as a shadow-like side of government because no one is directly elected to serve on these boards. What would the candidate do to make JPAs more transparent and how would they engage the public in programs and policy?

• The governing board votes on key decisions regarding land use, affordable housing, transportation, energy and other issues. Which JPA is the candidate most qualified for to govern it effectively?

• It is human nature to go along with your peers rather than stand alone. Is the candidate prepared to cast a sole dissenting vote in support of his/her constituency, if required?

Local control depends on electing city council members who will not sell out to over-reaching regional agendas of JPAs that could diminish our communities.

When you cast your vote for city council, think beyond how the candidate will address your community's needs to their future roles on LAFCOs and JPAs.

Susan Kirsch of Mill Valley is a founder of Citizen Marin, a grassroots group that opposed regional planning quotas.

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