Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Brown Act: An Analogy and a Couple of Anecdotes

In my last post, I began expounding on my theory that the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, is a source of government inefficiency.  I wasn’t suggesting that open meetings are a bad idea, but only arguing the Brown Act, as it has come to be written and interpreted, results in a policy-making process that is less than optimal.

I also explained that an effective and efficient government is important to urbanists because government-adopted laws and policies are much of the reason drivable suburbia continues to dominate our landscape.  It will be hard to unwind the current paradigm and to turn toward urbanism if government is ineffectual.  And it will be even harder if government is chronically short of funds because the electorate is unwilling to fully fund a government that they find inefficient.

However, the burden of proof is on me.  I must convince the reader that my perspective on the Brown Act is legitimate.  I understand that I have a difficult task.  Having spent years on the outside looking in, I know that it’s difficult to grasp how being under the restrictions of the Brown Act can feel like being encased in a mummy bag made of fly paper.

And so, to make my case as best I can, I’ll rely on my old tools of analogy and anecdotes.  I know that they’re not the best tools of argument, but they’re probably the ones I wield best, especially on the slippery task before me.

For an analogy, I’ll ask the readers to consider a situation which they’ve likely experienced in their own lives, a family making a decision about a summer vacation.  Based on personal experience, the decision-making would be an extended and multi-tiered process.

Perhaps the idea of selecting a vacation destination would first be broached over a family dinner.  Over the next few weeks, family members would do their own research and pondering.  Perhaps a couple of family dinners would turn toward the topic.  And casual conversations in hallways or during commercial breaks while watching television might include attempts to find compromises or to build coalitions to support a particular destination.

By the time the subject is ripe for decision, probably again over a family dinner, the outlines of an acceptable consensus would be well-known.  After a verbal free-for-all with interjections and interruptions, and perhaps with a few last concessions or tweaks, a vacation plan would adopted that would please almost everyone.

Now, consider the same process if the Brown Act applied to families.  The initial raising of the question of destination could be done only if all family members had adequate advance notice of the topic.

Individual research would still be allowed, but results could be shared with fewer than half of the family members.

Casual conversations on the topic would be permitted, but might be constrained, with family members concerned that conversations might be relayed to enough other family members that a forbidden serial conversation would result.

And chats during commercial breaks while watching television would be inconceivable because group watching would be disallowed as a non-public meeting.

And when the evening of the decision finally arrived, the dinner table would be observed by scores of strangers and rolling cameras.  Any final debate would be subject to the control of the family chair/parent.  Interruptions and interjections would be prohibited.  Family members might make effective arguments, but some members would be paying more attention to the notes on their intended arguments than to the arguments being made.  Some members might be tempted to be swayed, but would be fearful of being accused of “flip-flopping”.

A decision would still be reached and most years it would be a mostly reasonable decision, but without the carefully tuned nuances which a more natural process would have produced.  And every few years the family would be halfway to the Badlands of South Dakota before realizing that everyone in the car would have preferred to go to Disney World.

If you haven’t worked under the Brown Act, you may find this a caricature.  You’d be wrong.  A cousin, the same one who provided an economics explanation of government inefficiency for an earlier post, responded to my last post with her experience of being a school board member in the California foothills.

During her tenure on the board, she pushed for a new school district policy for several months, feeling that it would improve the educational experience.

The policy finally reached the school board for approval.  But a pair of other school board members had objections.  My cousin would have been happy to accommodate the objections within the proposed policy, but was unable to convey that flexibility during the stilted give-and-take of a board meeting.  The policy was defeated.  A couple of brief cloakroom conversations during the run-up to the meeting would have permitted the policy to be approved, but the Brown Act didn’t allow the option.

Closer to the North Bay, I sit on several City of Petaluma committees.  One of them recently adopted a new policy for another type of oversight by committee members.  A short time later, I found an article in a national email newsletter strongly endorsing the type of policy that we had adopted and suggesting guidelines for effective implementation.

In a non-Brown Act world, I would have immediately sent a link to the other committee members, congratulating them on the wisdom of their action and encouraging them to read the suggestions.  But the Brown Act instead forced me to send the link to the staff person who serves as committee liaison.  He forwarded it to the committee, but the impact was lessened.

On another committee, I was recently chatting with another member on the dais before a meeting.  She’d been pushing for a new policy by which resources could be more effectively targeted toward public needs.  I agreed with her suggestion, so we were quietly discussing strategy.  But then another member tried to join the conversation.  As the committee has seven members, a third participant in the conversation didn’t seem to violate the Brown Act.

But that night, we only expected to have five members in attendance, so three became a majority.  It suddenly became a grey area under the Brown Act.  A good general guideline under the Brown Act is to stay away from grey areas, so I called a halt to the conversation.  And a little bit of momentum slipped away.

I’ve likely claimed enough of your attention for one day.  But I’m not yet done.  In my next post, I’ll conclude the Brown Act discussion with an example of open versus non-open meetings, an anecdote about the silly situations which the Brown Act can create, and a thought about how to protect the goals of the Brown Act while also allowing more efficient government.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Government Inefficiency: Ralph M. Brown Isn’t Blameless

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing about the upcoming elections, including the tax measures on many ballots that would buttress municipal solvency in the aftermath of the great recession.  Among my subjects was a pre-emptive argument against those who would offer government inefficiency as grounds for voting against tax measures.

My urbanist reason for defending government is that we need an effective and adequately-funded government if we’re to abandon the reigning land-use paradigm and to move toward one that is more environmentally and financially sustainable.

In the previous post, I argued that it wasn’t fair to blame government for inefficiency when most households and corporations are similarly inefficient.  A well-educated reader, who also happens to be a cousin, added her explanation that the types of services provided by government, most of which aren’t suited to private enterprise, are prone by their nature to be inefficient.

But that post didn’t exhaust the topic of government inefficiency.  At least in California, there is one more cause of inefficiency that justifies its own discussion.  That cause is the Brown Act.

 Originally proposed in 1953 by Assemblymember Ralph M. Brown, the Brown Act has a laudable goal.  As described by Wikipedia, that goal is to guarantee “the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.”  I can’t imagine anyone arguing against that goal.

And it’s true that the Brown Act fills a need.  A reader has been emailing me about a land-use action near his home in Pennsylvania, where the Town Council refused to let the public review application documents for a new big box until thirty days after the Council gave its approval.  Not thirty days before, but thirty days after.  The public was barred from examining the site plans, traffic study, etc. even as the Council was voting.  The Brown Act prevents that abuse of power in California.

Also, given that at least four members of the California Legislature are currently facing criminal charges, I can’t reasonably argue that public officials are as pure as driven snow, so some level of regulation is appropriate.

However, the Brown Act has expanded greatly since 1953, restricting more and more of the conduct of public officials.  I expect that each expansions seemed reasonable on its own, but the result of the gradual accumulation of rules has been to strip elected and appointed officials of many of the tools of effective government.

An email to a majority of fellow members of a public board encouraging a course of action?  Banned.  Phone calls to the same folks suggesting an alternative perspective on a knotty problem?   Banned.  A casual conversation between the same people at a public function?  Banned.  And many public officials stay even further away from the strict prohibitions of the Brown Act for fear of being inadvertently implicated in a violation, such as an email to a fellow public official that the other official forwards to the entire body.

In the U.S., we embrace the stories of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Everett Dirksen imagining new problem-solving strategies and then honing those strategies and building consensuses by combining grand oratory with cloakroom cajoling.  But as much as we honor that model, we reject it in our contemporary world.

In place of the reasoned debate which the founders of democracy considered essential to effective government, the Brown Act largely results in public officials sitting on a dais exchanging lists of platitudes and only rarely engaging in substantive discussion.  Anyone who has attended a city council or board of supervisors meeting should be familiar with the stilted and unproductive communication style.

Under the contemporary governance model, many decisions are reached through private study, followed by a public hearing during which citizens speak to officials whose minds are largely made up, a “discussion” that is largely comprised of officials talking past each other with bullet point lists, and a perfunctory vote.  There are still the moments when good ideas and effective compromises fight through the debris of process and rise to the surface, but those moments are few.

With the public officials restricted in their ability to construct solutions, much of the responsibility for promoting new ideas and strategies moves to municipal staff.  However, staff members have their own restrictions.

I find most staff members to be reasonable and trustworthy folks.  A city employee I knew in another state used a “childcare rule” for judging those with whom she worked.  Before engaging with someone, she would ask herself whether she’d be willing to entrust her child to the person and would let the answer govern her conduct.  I find the rule reasonable and have often invoked it in my own dealings.  And I find that I generally have more trust in staff members than in public officials.

However, staff people aren’t always the right folks to be on the leading edge of change.  Historically, job preservation has always been a concern among staff members, many of whom are trying to put down roots in a community.  And pension reform only makes the situation worse.  An extended period between employment positions covered by a municipal pension plan can result in loss of pension benefits, which discourages staff members from being mavericks.

So we’ve created a world in which the long-term success of our communities demands that we consider alternative land-use strategies and yet we’ve created financial incentives for public staff to not rock the boat and restricted the tools with which public officials can push for change.  If we were to set ourselves the goal of creating a system in which a flawed status quo survives despite its deficiencies, we could hardly have done better.

I’ve always believed in the dicta that criticism should be constructive, combining suggestions for improvement with disapproval of the current situation.  However, I struggle for ideas about reducing the stranglehold of the Brown Act.  But I’m open to ideas from readers.  In my next post, I’ll describe a few anecdotes from my experiences with the Brown Act and also perhaps share some newly-received thoughts about improvements.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Finding a Parallel between Football Knowledge and Urbanism

The last few posts, about the candidates and tax measures on the upcoming election ballots, have been a trudge.  I’ve been wearied by the effort of picking my way through a minefield of possible misstatements, trying to find the best words to explain how I’ll vote.  And I suspect that many readers have been similarly wearied in their efforts to follow my carefully-placed footsteps.

Nor am I quite finished with the elections.  I have at least two more election-related topics that remain untouched.  But those can wait until next week.

Today will be lighter fare, as I acknowledge the beginning of football season by telling a personal anecdote about my first experience with football.  I’ll end with drawing a parallel between urbanism and football knowledge.  It isn’t my best insight ever, but it makes me smile, which is a pleasant sensation after the disheartening task of scanning the ballot options.

In my heart, I’ll always be a baseball guy.  There’s something about the crack of a bat on a balmy summer evening that can’t be matched.  The camaraderie and conversation around a slow-paced but strategic baseball game trumps a body-crunching football game every time.  I’ve attended some memorable football games, but I’ve had some memorable times with friends at baseball games.  And I’ll always prefer the memories of friends.

Besides, I mostly quit attending football games two years ago.  I’m unsure that there’s a solution to the head injury crisis, but I’m quite sure that few are willing to risk killing the golden goose.  I still enjoy the occasional game on television and am thrilled that my alma mater has started 2-0, but no longer wish to sit in the stands and watch young men sustain life-altering brain injuries for my entertainment.

But football has nonetheless been a part of my life, all the way back to the day when I first held a football.  I think it was during August 1961.

During my early school years, my family lived in a town east of Los Angeles.  The home was a typical 1950s tract home on a good-sized lot, but with parks and playgrounds far beyond my mobility options.  So I spent much of my playtime with the boy next door.

Greg was exactly one week older than me and we were otherwise well-matched.  There were other kids in the neighborhood, but because of age or differing interests, they were rarely part of the action.  Instead, it was Greg and I playing our weekends and summers away.

There was even a gate in the fence between our yards, allowing play to commence without the formality of a knock on the front door.  And the play areas were divided between our backyards.  My yard held the basketball hoop, tetherball pole, and swing set.  Greg’s backyard wasn’t as well equipped, but had a large rectangular area of grass, enough to approximate a baseball field for a pair of youngsters.

And play baseball we did, or at least some truncated version of the game.  Perhaps two youngsters, one bat, and one ball don’t seem like enough pieces for a game of baseball, but we found a way to entertain ourselves for hours.

However, there was a hiccup in the spring of 1961.  Greg’s family made an addition to their house, a family room that occupied all of our right field and a big chunk of center.  Where we previously had a normally-shaped, if diminutive, ballfield on which to play, we now had a dark brown stucco wall looming just beyond the baseline between first and second.  If we’d had a sense of baseball history or strategy, we would have named the wall the Chocolate Monster and begun batting left-handed.  But we lacked both, so we continued our games as before, trying to ignore the intruder.

Perhaps taking pity on us, Greg’s father tried to give us an alternative, buying a football for Greg during a shopping outing that summer.

Upon returning home, Greg rushed over to show me his new possession.  And to download the knowledge of the game he had gathered during the ride home from the store, the entirety of which was “You can run or you can pass.  And if you don’t punt on fourth down, you’re stupid.”

And so there we were, two eight-year-olds, not quite clear on what a punt or a down might be, but absolutely sure that not punting on fourth down was stupid.

In my recollection, our fascination with the football was short.  Perhaps our ballfield had been butchered, but the draw of the ball and bat remained strong.  However, the memory of that first encounter with a football never faded.

Over the years, I learned much more about the game of football, not only about punts and downs, but also about bubble screens, draw plays, and delayed blitzes.  And in the memory of that knowledge gain, I can see a foreshadowing of my growth as an urbanist.

Drivable suburbia is the equivalent of the rudimentary knowledge of football.  “Put the housing here, the retail over there, and the office park across town.  And if you don’t immediately start complaining about traffic, you’re stupid.”

Whereas walkable urban development, with its multiple and interrelated elements of transit access, walkable retail, urban plazas, sidewalk cafes, parking strategies, and varied housing options, is the equivalent of a fully-nuanced  understanding of football.

And just like a football team becomes more successful as it grasps and implements more elements of the game, so do cities thrive as they move beyond a rudimentary land-use model.

Some may wonder if Greg and I remain in contact after all these years.  Unfortunately, no.  My family moved to Northern California after my third grade year.  We came back to visit Greg and his family a year later.  But a year is a long time when one is ten.  Our interests and fourth grade experiences had taken us in different directions and we had little in common.  The long afternoons of playing on the grassy rectangle were irrevocably in the past.  I never saw him again.

Occasionally, I look for him on-line.  He’s now living near Las Vegas.  But I don’t feel motivated to contact him.  If we’d drifted apart as ten-year-olds, we’d be strangers in our 60s.  But I still remember the eight-year-old Greg with affection.  And I’ll never forget his judgment about punting on fourth down.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Urbanism Shouldn’t be a Forbidden Topic

The upcoming elections have been a recent emphasis of this blog.  Within the past couple of weeks, I’ve written about looking for traces of urbanism among the candidates, about the tax measures that Petaluma and other cities have put forth to address their financial malaise, about the objections from urbanists to the tax measures , and about the misconceptions about government inefficiency that may affect voting on the ballot measures and perhaps also undermine the future of urbanism.

In keeping with my personal philosophy, I was looking at public policy from an urbanist perspective.  But to what extent is that perspective a factor in the general public discourse on these subjects?  Not the discourse in the obscure corners of the internet such as this blog, but the everyday discourse of average citizen?  To put it another way, how often is urbanism discussed at dinner parties, family picnics, or church socials?  And does it receive as much attention as the reigning suburban paradigm?

The answer, at least in my observation, is that urbanism is rarely a factor in the public forum.  And I’m troubled by that answer.  As I wrote a few weeks back, urbanism is the study of strategies for municipal success and the advocacy of the best practices.  How could such a key subject not have found its way into daily discourse?  Especially when we regularly talk about how to perpetuate the current suburban paradigm in our discussions about the need to widen streets, to approve a new big box, or to endorse a new subdivision for the jobs it would create?

It’s a question about which I’ve often thought.  I have a working hypothesis about why urbanism remains in the shadows while suburbanism is well-established in the public forum.  However, it’s only a hypothesis.  Readers are encouraged to respond with concurrence or disagreement.

Under my hypothesis, I suspect that the suburban discussion is considered economic development, which has always been considered suitable table talk.  But urbanism is considered politics, which falls under the American interdict about religion and politics not being suitable topics for public conversation.

Nor is that dichotomy limited to our land-use paradigm.  The hypothesis can also be applied to many aspects of American life, from education to emergency services to banking regulations.  Talking about how to support the current paradigm is considered acceptable conversation, but talking about changing the paradigm is considered politics and earns a quick “Shsssh.”

I’ve never understood the prohibition against discussion of politics or religion.  Yes, I understand that conversations on these topics have sometimes devolved into shouting matches that have ruined holiday dinners.   But I suggest that some of us are unable to discuss the topics in a civilized manner because we haven’t learned how to do so because we were prohibited from doing so in our formative years.

It’s become a viscous circle that now bars us from having the meaningful conversations that we need to improve our communities and our world.

With that said, I still believe strongly in the Latin maxim "De gustibus non est disputandum", which means that that matters of taste aren’t subject to argument.  But there’s a bright line between having productive, non-judgmental conversations and arguing over matters of taste.

“What do you find compelling about Judaism?” seems a fine and reasonable question.  “How can you not be a Christian?” isn’t.

“Why you think big boxes are ultimately harmful for the community?” is a fine question.  “Why do urbanists want everyone to live in six-story concrete boxes?” isn’t.

To sum up, I believe that many of us view continuing suburbanism as economic development, which makes it a topic fit for general consumption, while viewing urbanism as politics.  I find that assignment of categories to be unfortunate.  Even worse, we then put politics, along with religion, outside the range of genteel conversation.  And that is the wall that we must break down, for the sake of urbanism and many other areas in which sacred cows are being given a free pass.

As I said, this is only my hypothesis.  But it’s a hypothesis on which I’ll build in the coming weeks.  Feedback will be welcomed.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Petaluma’s Measure Q: The Argument Over Government Efficiency

My last two posts have been about Measure Q, which will be on the Petaluma ballot this fall.   It’s a sales tax measure intended to address the municipal budgetary issues lingering after the great recession.  There are many similar tax measures on ballots across the country, so in writing about Measure Q, I hope that I’m touching up the issues that are being raised in many municipalities.  Although I’ll leave it to individual readers to translate the discussion below to their particular communities.

The connection between urbanism and Measure Q, and its multitude of siblings, is clear, but nonetheless awkward.  Much of the municipal financial malaise which Measure Q targets is the result of 70 years of unjustified faith in the land-use paradigm of drivable suburbia.  As has been long predicted, the costs of the failed experiment are coming home to roost and cities everywhere are struggling with the results.

But the response of too many cities, including Petaluma, isn’t to use the requested new tax proceeds to change land-use models, but instead to use the dollars to double down on their bets on drivable suburbia.  This decision leaves urbanists, such as me, in a quandary.  While willing to help pay off the debts of failed suburbia, we’d prefer not to be a part of further wrong-headed “investments”. 

In my last two posts, I wrote about how genetic coding lingering in my DNA after four centuries may be leading me to support Measure Q and about my responses to objections raised by readers.

Before leaving Measure Q, at least for awhile, I want to touch upon one final objection that is often made to increased municipal taxes.  Perhaps it hasn’t been raised on my blog or in emails to me, but it requires only a short search to find the objection splattered around the internet.

And that argument is that cities have plenty of money to fulfill their mission and only fail because they are appallingly inefficient.  Admittedly, it may be only a few folks who hold that opinion, but elections something swing on a few folks or the few other folks who listen to fringe opinions.

So, I want to write about the fallacy of government inefficiency.  If you still choose to vote against Measure Q, that’s your decision.  But I don’t want government inefficacy to be one of your reasons, because we’ll need to believe in government if we are to make the turn toward urbanism.  It was government that played a key role in codifying and organizing our turn toward suburbia and we’ll need government to play a similar role as we back out of that failure and head elsewhere.

By chance, I wrote about the fallacy of government inefficiency in a draft post several months.  I excised the words in final editing because the post ran too long, but I saved the text and it works fine here.

“Let me touch upon a couple of points that are often raised in opposition to proposed tax hikes.  First, some will claim that if government was more efficient, then the new taxes wouldn’t be needed.  Second, some will argue that they can’t afford the new taxes.

“In response to the former, I agree that government is inefficient.  So are households where, on average, 40 percent of purchased food is thrown away because of spoilage and where many spare bedrooms are filled with unused exercise equipment.  So are corporations which often make poor strategic decisions and fail to support important initiatives because of board room politics.

“It’s the nature of people, especially groups of people, to be inefficient.  Given an adequacy of resources, we often let inattention, personal agendas, and bickering take priority over efficiency.

“It’s an intriguing goal to suggest that government be more efficient than the rest of us.  But as a basis for ballot box decisions, it’s idealistic and misguided.

“In response to the concern about the affordability of new taxes, it’s certainly possible that a tax increase will be difficult for some to afford.  But I suggest that the difficulty is more related to how we distribute income and share tax burdens.   These are worthy topics of discussion, although far beyond the scope of an urbanism blog.  And I don’t think we can afford to hamstring our governments while we pursue philosophical discussions on topics that we’ve ducked for years.”

At the time, I exchanged emails on the subject with an economist cousin, who also had thoughts to share.  (A note about my family: I have a remarkable set of cousins, all of whom have attracted similarly remarkable spouses.  There may not be many of us, I have only three first cousins, but when we sit down over a holiday dinner, there is a mechanical engineer, a forester, an attorney, an artist, a former economics professor, and others.  Even better, we all get along, with conversations that are as insightful as they are spirited.  I deeply appreciate having this family.)

My cousin’s comments, only slightly edited for clarity, follow:

“I agree with your thoughts about government, although I would also add this: Government is more inefficient than people or private companies because it takes on more difficult tasks.  It’s relatively easy for the private sector to be efficient.  Farmers, for example, know the prices (even future prices) of what they produce, so it’s easy for them to optimize.  But government undertakes a task only when the market prevents the private sector from operating efficiently.  And these tasks are often very hard:

·         “Public goods, e.g. national defense, fireworks, lighthouses - Due to the free-rider problem, the private sector won’t provide these kinds of goods, so it’s up to government to do it.  This is hard enough in itself because it’s hard to decide how much of different kinds of defense services to provide without price signals to guide you, but it also allows public officials to misallocate resources, e.g., by insisting that obsolete defense programs be funded so as to create jobs in a certain district.
·         “Natural monopolies, like the postal service - With farmers, the profit motive leads to a somewhat efficient outcome.  But with a natural monopoly, the profit motive leads to an inefficient outcome.  So when the postal service loses money (which is optimal), it’s seen as confirming the idea that government does things inefficiently.  Congress also interferes here, e.g., by insisting that post offices be run out in the middle of nowhere.

·         ”Transfers - Any organization that gives out money and benefits is going to have to deal with fraud, even private companies, e.g., double-dippers at the free sample booths at Costco.  The government does more of this than the private sector, and is therefore more vulnerable to fraud.

·         “Externalities - Economists have long advocated market-based solutions to externalities, but these would involve taxes, which are often unacceptable, and subsidies, which are counted as expenditures in budgets.  Congress often prefers regulation because the costs are hidden in that they’re passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

“Ultimately, government has an imposingly difficult set of tasks, much like Ginger Rogers dancing backwards in high heels.”

I’m not sure I grasp every point she offers, but at least I know where to begin the Christmas dinner conversation.

In my next post, I’ll speculate about why it’s so hard to start community discussions about urbanism.  After that, I’ll tackle football and urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Petaluma’s Measure Q: The Arguments Roll In

In my last post, I wrote about my reasons for supporting Measure Q in Petaluma, a sales tax measure intended to replenish municipal coffers after the great recession.  I suggested that my distant roots in Puritanism may induce me to insist on paying my own way, rather than transferring the costs of municipal upkeep to other segments of the population or other generations, and leading me to vote for Measure Q even though I find some aspects flawed.

The specific circumstances around Measure Q are unique to Petaluma, but there are similar tax measures on ballots around the country as the costs of the failed 70-year experiment in drivable suburbia continue to be tallied.  So I feel comfortable writing about Measure Q and letting the readers draws the parallels to their own communities.

From my email inbox, it appears that I may be in a minority among urbanists in my support of Measure Q.  And I’m fine with that.  Writing this blog is indicative of my willingness to not conform.  I can’t see the harm in finding yet one more isolated island to inhabit.

However, the emails make legitimate comments about Measure Q, which I think are worthy of discussion.  So today’s post will summarize the comments and my responses.

One reader, a long-time Petaluma resident who recently moved away and misses the town, wrote that, if he still lived here, he’d oppose Measure Q because it’s “a backdoor to the Rainier Connector”.

To which I could only question of his use of “backdoor”.  To me, it’s a clear front door.  Proponents often point toward the Rainier Connector as a reason to support Measure Q.

Indeed, the likelihood of Rainier being built is my principal concern with Measure Q.  I can only hope that the city uses the Measure Q funds to do the necessary infrastructure repairs and then, during the years during which Caltrans is assembling the funds to improve Highway 101 to accommodate the Rainier Connector, the community sees the flaws in Rainier and collectively decides to shift priorities elsewhere.  I know that likelihood is limited, but I’m willing to hope that the public eventually grasps the failure of suburbia.

Another reader expressed concern about the possibility of future City Councils redirecting the revenue from the tax measure.  One specific concern she expressed was the use of the funds to cover pension obligations.

But the key point on pensions is that the obligation already exists.  Short of falling into municipal bankruptcy and attempting to discharge a part of the pension obligation through the court system as is being done in Detroit and Stockton, we're stuck with the debt.  Measure Q isn't so much about funding the pensions, but about making up the shortfall that results after City Hall writes the checks to the pension funds.

One can certainly argue that the pension deals reached by the City Councils of the late 20th century were flawed and should never have been made.  Indeed, that is a conversation that I think should happen so that we can learn from the mistakes.  But any conclusions we reach will have no impact on the current municipal financial outlook.

Lastly, a reader says that she’ll vote against Measure Q because the tax is regressive and falls unreasonably hard on younger adults getting started in life and raising families.  I’ll make the pedantic point that, as a flat rate, the sales tax is actually neither progressive nor regressive.  And then I’ll agree with her enthusiastically.

I’d much rather see municipal finances addressed by a progressive tax, whether a revision to Proposition 13, a local income tax, or some other alternative.  This argument veers into an area of national economic policy and social equity that is beyond both the range of this blog and my ability to effectively discourse, but remains worthy of consideration by the voters.

Indeed, this point almost displaces the Rainier Connector as a reason to dislike Measure Q.  Nonetheless, I still remain clothespin-on-nose supportive of Measure Q.  Those darned Pilgrims are deeply embedded in my psyche.

(This last reader also makes the humorous aside that she truly doesn’t mind the potholes, finding that they make an effective traffic calming approach on her overly wide street.  This argument is tangential to Measure Q, but nonetheless seemed worthy of sharing.)

I hadn’t planned on covering this subject today, but receiving thought-provoking emails is always cause for celebration and publishing schedule adjustments.  Under my revised schedule, my next three posts will address the principal non-urbanist objection to Measure Q, ruminations on why urbanism doesn’t have a more prominent role in public debate, and a parallel between urbanism and football.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

We Built This Stuff, We Really Should Take Care of It

When I was a young engineer, long before the days of electronic communication, I often found myself giving my name when leaving a message.  If the person taking the message was of a certain age, let’s say at least two decades older than me, the response upon hearing my last name was often, “Any relation to John?”

Over time, the frequency of the question waned.  The older message-takers retired and their younger replacements were from an era after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish” had disappeared from high school syllabi.  I can guess a number of reasons why Longfellow was dropped, but still miss the days when I was regularly asked about John Alden.

 (For those not familiar with the narrative poem, Longfellow writes of the early days of the Pilgrim settlement in what is now Massachusetts.  The photo above is of a replica of the Mayflower, the ship in which the Pilgrims arrived.

Miles Standish was a military officer for the colony, responsible for maintaining peace with the Native Americans.  But whatever confidence he may have shown in military affairs was lacking in his relationship with the opposite gender.

Arguing that his time was better spent in managing the weaponry of the colony, he asked his good friend John Alden to ask on Standish’s behalf for the hand of Priscilla Mullins, another young Pilgrim.  John, although he also fancied Priscilla, agreed to undertake the duty for his friend.

Priscilla, perhaps deciding that a good-natured dupe was a better catch than a preening but cowardly military man, responded with the words that were among Longfellow’s most famous, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”  Nuptials followed shortly afterwards.)

To answer the long-ago question, yes, the John Alden of the Longfellow poem is my distant grandfather, thirteen generations distant.  Indeed, John and Priscilla are the progenitors of everyone in the U.S. named Alden and a great many more also.  One estimate is that a half-million people are descended from the original two Aldens.

And so it is that a small handful of my ancestors were Pilgrims.  Starting with John and Priscilla and then counting the in-laws of their son from whom I’m descended and continuing for another generation or two before the Pilgrims began to disperse and to meld into the bigger world, there might be twenty Pilgrims of John and Priscilla’s generation in my family tree.

However, one has 8,192 ancestors thirteen generations back, so twenty would seem to have a relatively minor effect on my genetic makeup.  Nonetheless, I sometimes feel a tug of Puritanism, the belief system that drove the Pilgrims to the New World, when I ponder municipal finances.  And that tug will dictate how on I vote on a key ballot measure in Petaluma this November, a ballot measure that has its equivalents in many communities.

As I’ve often written in this blog, our modern suburban world relies on a web of subsidies.  People who live closer to the urban core, and therefore need less infrastructure to live their lives, nonetheless pay property taxes that support those near the fringe.

Buyers of new homes, through impact fees, are expected to cover the infrastructure cost of the increasing population of which they’re a part, but many of those fees go toward maintenance and upgrade costs that would have been required even without population growth.  (This is what StrongTowns calls the suburban Ponzi scheme.)

The next generation is expected to cover the costs of infrastructure maintenance that we choose to defer in this generation.

And the general taxpayers, regardless of their own reliance of petroleum, are expected to cover many of the environmental and geopolitical costs and risks of petroleum use.

The Puritanism in me, although heavily diluted, quails at benefiting from any of these subsidies.  Puritanism is about self-sufficiency, about not having a negative balance in what Tom Wolfe, in
“Bonfire of the Vanities” described as the “favor bank”, the sum total of favors owed to and due from others.  I don’t find it necessary to have a positive balance, but find that a negative balance in my favor bank is morally uncomfortable.

And thus I’ll vote yes this November on Petaluma’s Measure Q, a sales tax increase intended to restore funding for deferred municipal obligations such as infrastructure maintenance and vehicle replacement.  My vote is in keeping with my oft-stated philosophy, “We built this stuff, we really should take care of it.”

I understand that the new tax will be a burden on some.  However, that burden is the result of having built a world for which upkeep is expensive.   The challenge should be finding a way to build a world that is more affordable, not finding someone on whom to offload the expenses. 

To be fair, I should note that some of the people with I share an urbanist philosophy will be voting against Measure Q.  They aren’t trying to duck their share of the deferred costs.  However, they’re uncomfortable with the plan to use some of the proceeds from Measure Q to build the Rainier Connector, finding it unwise to build more infrastructure that we’ll struggle to maintain.

I see their point and share their discomfort with the Rainier Connector, but feel that the need to cover deferred expenses is the greater good at this time.  Also, I can hope that over the next five years, before the earliest date on which the Rainier Connector can go into construction, the community will realize the need to build a more affordable world.  Which is one reason that I’ll continue to write this blog.

Thinking back to John and Priscilla Alden, I suspect that they would have been puzzled that we even needed to discuss whether to maintain the stuff we built.  But once they understood the issues, I believe they would have also voted for Measure Q, although also being hesitant to build new infrastructure that will be financially difficult to maintain.  It was the way Puritans thought.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)