Our local county government has been continuously improving in an impressive way. While the public debate rages over cannabis initiatives, I suggest that the County take a calming breath and ask the public for the far less controversial, but long overdue approval of a charter, which is like a local constitution. Like the charters already adopted by some cities within Kern County, a charter would allow the County to not only opt-out of certain state rules that are not consistent with our local needs and preferences, but implement our own rules.
Here are three potential changes from state law that I believe should be discussed:
1. People Who Live in Kern County Should Choose Who Fills Vacant Seats on the Kern County Board of Supervisors Instead of Allowing Governor Newsom to Do So.
If a member of the Board of Supervisors were to retire or be removed from office before completing a term, as some believe could happen this year as a result of a criminal proceeding or pre-trial settlement, state law would give California's Governor the power to appoint a successor.
But, local leaders have a greater feel for local issues and local candidates. They talk to people every single day about such concerns and, as a result, develop a strong sensibility for local attitudes and preferences. Governor Newsom, by contrast, made two or three campaign stops here last cycle. Before Newsom, Governor Brown admitted his indifference and disinterest when he asked rhetorically of the Central Valley, "People actually live there?" And Kevin De Leon, who ran for Senate and may very well be our next Governor after Newsown, once objected to a plan to start building high speed rail in the segment connecting Fresno and Bakersfield by saying, "I don't think it makes sense to lay down track in the middle of nowhere... It's illogical. No one lives out there in the tumbleweeds.' The principles of federalism we learned in high school government class tell us that it very often makes sense to place the decisions of local concerns in the hands of those who will be accountable to the locals who will be affected by the decisions; it's a double-bonus when decision-makers know locals exist separate from the tumbleweeds.
Different charter counties choose to handle the appointment or special election of a new member to fill a vacancy differently. Since charters require amendment by the voters, even energetic partisans should seek a fair process. I'd probably choose to mirror the state's process for cities rather than counties, which gives some flexibility to either appoint by vote of existing members or call a special election depending on the relative concerns about authenticity of representation from a vote of the body versus the additional cost of holding a special election. The city process would allow, by ordinance, to simply always require a special election to fill vacancies, which is an option, too. Given that the County has an annual budget in the billions of dollars, it seems the cost of a rare special election would be de mininis.
But, whatever the process or rule, the Board of Supervisors needs to exercise its authority to protect the sovereignty of its own people and take back the appointment power from Sacramento.
2. Districts Should be Made Smaller for More Effective Local Representation.
The state's one-size-fits-all general law provides for five supervisors, but Kern county is larger in geography than the State of New Jersey. The result is that our local representatives have districts that are more easily compared to the size of districts for state or federal office.
This makes providing for "hands-on" local representation a herculean task. Supervisor David Couch once told me that a big part of serving people in local government is "showing up," but that's not always as easy as it sounds in a district so large and diverse that people in one part of it sometimes don't even know that other parts of it exist. I've driven with David as he has burned through multiple cars looking for illegal dump sites and potholes in the roads. He is left rather brilliantly figuring out how he can represent people with different perspectives on the world -- metaphorically speaking, is it possible to wear both jerseys on game day of the legendary Wasco versus Shafter rivalry? Maybe, but perhaps only because both the Tigers and the Generals already know you played tennis as a loyal Driller.
And, unlike some other large counties, Kern doesn't have a hyper-centralized population. Consider this: Supervisor Mick Gleason lives to the east of the City of Ridgecrest but represents people as far west as Bakersfield's Seven Oaks residential development. Google tells me that it will likely take Supervsior Gleason almost two and a half hours -- one way -- to drive from his house to meet with constituents at Seven Oaks, but three hours could be just as realistic depending on traffic. And, his district's population centers do not run exclusively along that route. Supervisor Zack Scrivner lives in generally affluent, artsy, and isolated Tehachapi, but represents voters in Rosamond, a desert area that is changing, but that is still in many ways a bedroom community for people who live in and are focused on Los Angeles. Scrivner also negotiates the snow-filled roads of Frazier Park and Pine Mountain Club to the South and the often blisteringly hot oil town of Taft to the west. Frazier Park's economy seems more closely tied to tourism and travel while Taft's fortunes are still bound in no small part to the oil industry. And, at the same time, Scrivner represents some of the poorest areas of Bakersfield, which present entirely different communities and policy needs than other parts of his district.
If the County were to place a charter on the ballot, it could consider moving to a seven person board. That's still considerably less costly than San Francisco City/County, which has eleven members of its board, plus a mayor. Although the last thing most people will tell you they want is more politicians, they aren't particularly fond of bureaucracy, either. And, if their elected representatives are spread too thin in very large districts, they will be governed by bureaucrats in their elected leader's hurried absence. There would be an added expense in paying for two new supervisors, but the staffers who are often appointed by supervisors to provide constituent services in each of the district's more remote locations would be less necessary, which could reduce the additional cost. If the multi-million dollar cost the County has paid to defend the five board member system in legal fees in the past and could pay, again, is considered, the more easily-defensible seven-member maps would likely come close to paying for the new members in reduced legal fees.
In sum, a charter provision for seven board members would (a) give the people of Kern County representatives who are not so ridiculously spread thin and (b) help the process of drawing maps that comply with the Voting Rights Act in the future.
3. County Counsel should be an Elected Officer.
Our current County Counsel is doing a fine job and doesn't need replacing. I'd vote for her. Furthermore, while I understand that a county charter can create an indefinite term for the statutory office of County Counsel, I've never heard of another county electing their county counsel before. It's much more common with City Attorney positions.
But, up and down the state residents look to their city attorneys or county counsels as some kind of fair determiner of law external to pressures of the governing body. That is unrealistic given the attorneys' ethical duty to the governmental entity and, more so, given that, if not elected, the county's attorney serves at the pleasure of the Board of Supervisors.
I've heard even sophisticated developers and others bet their efforts before a board or city counsel on their belief that the unelected public entity attorney will provide the whole legal context -- including theirs -- and not just what the council members or board members want to hear. Then, they are left spinning conspiracy theories about why the unelected public attorney seemed to simply reinforce rather than correct the Board's own bias. In neutral legal memos, lawyers are often saying things like "on the other hand" and "it all depends," but such phrases are all too-often absent from the advocate's vocabulary and, not coincidentally, the public comments of appointed count counsels. It's not hard to figure out -- the Board can fire the attorney while the developer or the public, for that matter, cannot.
A buffer of independence is needed. An elected County Counsel works for and is ultimately accountable to the county's residents. There are downsides to that for a board. For one, even though the Board may still have great influence over the county's chief attorney by controlling their budget and other matters, elected attorneys are simply far less likely to resist displeasing individual board members in their representation of the County. They also tend to pursue their own intiatives in the name of justice. And, they have a way of showboating for the voters that can be controversial.
I don't have a crystal ball, but I suspect that voters would agree that it is time for the County to adopt a charter. County charters do not have the same degree of freedom to depart from state rules as city charters do, but there are other issues with varying degrees of legal controversy that could be addressed as well – classification of employees for outsourcing, prevailing wage, modernization of civil service, and many more. I envy the Board members, subcommittee, or staffers who will have the opportunity to host the workshop for public discussion. It's not often that we are able to host the local equivalent of a Constitutional convention. If the County would like to open such duties to former staffers turned attorneys, my number is 661-322-3051. Please add that to your contacts before returning to the Cannabis wars.
[Note: The aerial photograph in the cover image depicts only a very small portion of the expansive geography of Kern County. It was taken by Ryan Harvey of Portland, Oregon, who made it available under a creative commons license on wikimedia.]