I attended a course on “Ethical and Transparent Government” last Saturday and, throughout the day, I couldn’t help thinking about the Oakley City Manager mortgage bailout that happened a year ago. Everything I was being taught brought me back to the conditions surrounding it. In fact, my belief is that the bailout of the CM’s mortgage at taxpayer expense didn’t just appear out of thin air. The seeds for it were sewn in the years before by the mindset and biases of the Council. For the good of the city, that mindset must change.
For instance, one Council member had become fond of saying, “If we like you, we’ll take care of you.” It’s not uncommon for people to feel this way. I think we all would prefer to deal with people who are friendly and, at least, pretend to like us. But that’s not government. When you’re elected you must represent everyone, even the people you don’t like or those who don’t agree with you or didn’t vote for you. We live in a democracy where all are created equal and have equal status. A Council member is here to do what’s best for the city, not just the favored few.
Then there was the “quid pro quo” approach. The “I’ll take care of you if you take care of me” mindset you heard behind the scenes far too often. It’s a given that a lot of politics, maybe most of it, is based on this principle but that doesn’t make it right. Votes and public policy shouldn’t be based on the barter system. Again, the bottom line must be “what’s good for the city” not “what’s good for my political career” or “what’s good for my friends/people who support me.” In fact, even the trading of votes between Council members, the “I’ll vote for yours if you vote for mine” scenario, is strictly prohibited by law for local government. Council members must act and vote on the value of legislation, not the value they may receive for acting or voting a particular way.
Equally troubling were those “I run this town!” boasts where action or influence was promised through the status of individuals on the Council. First off, politicians should walk in humility. They are, after all, public servants. But this was also an insult to other Council members. Authority is, and should be, held co-equally among all five members of the City Council. To claim you “run the show” says that other Council members don’t have a hand in it.
Also, from my perspective, it’s not the Council that holds the power. It’s the people who voted them into office. When those who took issue with the high density Knox Lane and Rosewood developments showed up at City Council meetings, groups who collected 4,000 signatures against the projects, they were treated like second class citizens. At the very least their input should have been factored into a decision painstakingly made over an extended length of time. Indeed, public input must be an actual part of decision making, not just something to be ignored, marginalized, or attacked.
With this kind of mindset, it’s easy to see how the City Council ultimately blundered into approving the City Manager’s $360,000 payday at your expense. They adopted a mindset where they could operate in a self-created vacuum out of touch with the citizenry at large. It became their way or the highway even if their way led to malfeasance. Neither is it lost on me that Randy Pope, our junior Council member at the time, was the only one to vote against the City Manager bailout. Mr. Pope refused to buy into the existing mindset and, as the junior on the panel, had not been a part of its creation. He faced considerable institutional blowback for his vote but stayed the course and continues to deserve kudos for it.
And so, this election is not about “Police, Roads, Jobs.” While these things are very important to Oakley’s future, it is ethical and transparent government that is most important. If a candidate had a hand in the City Manager bailout, or supported those who did, they must not be allowed to serve. Your vote and trust must be placed elsewhere. We must narrow the gap between politicians and the people they’re supposed to represent. We must insist on ethical, transparent government.
It’s time for Oakley voters to put their foot down and make sure the bailout, or anything like it, never happens again.