Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

How the State Legislature Impacts Local Government

By Miriam Schulman

As someone who has served on a local school board, a city council, a county board of supervisors, the state assembly and senate, Joe Simitian has the experience to speak with authority about how different levels of government interact. Simitian, who recently returned to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors from the California State Senate, offered some advice on navigating those interactions at a meeting of the Center's Public Sector Roundtable Feb. 1.

Simitian identified three pitfalls in the relationship between cities, counties, and state government:

  1. Thinking that the business of whatever government entity you serve is preeminent over all others. "It's an entirely human inclination," Simitian allowed, "to think that whatever good and important work we do should take precedence over all others." But, Simitian cautioned, local officials will have more credibility if they acknowledge that other government projects also have legitimate claims on limited resources.
  2. A disinclination to think about the common good. "Constituents," said Simitian, "don't care about jurisdictions." They aren't worried about whether a green space is a city playground, a county park, or a state nature reserve; they just want a safe outdoor place to take their children. Public officials, he argued, should stop seeing themselves as representatives of a particular government entity and start thinking of themselves as representatives of constituents, all of whom are residents of a school district, a city, a county, and a state.
  3. Succumbing to a hyped-up sense of crisis sometimes fomented by statewide lobbying organizations. While Simitian praised the work of groups like the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties, he also suggested that these groups sometimes inflate the conflicts between local and state governments.

Simitian said candidly that elected officials at every level need to get over a sense of entitlement. "I spent 12 years in the California legislature listening to people in local government complain about Sacramento taking their money away from them. Their criticisms were sometimes valid; but I thought it was the public's money and that the public wanted us to spend it in whatever way it would do the most good, irrespective of jurisdiction."

As an example, Simitian pointed to the recent fight over the end of California Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs). The state legislature voted in 2012 to discontinue the program, which had been intended to direct government money to blighted areas. Simitian recognized that RDAs had made major improvements in many municipalities. But at the time the RDA funding came up for a vote, Simitian said, "we were cutting health care for some of the neediest people in California, taking away life and death services because the money wasn't there. Then I read about a redevelopment project in Sacramento called The Dive Bar (complete with mermaid!) that received $6 million in taxpayer money. At some point, we have to acknowledge what everyone would agree are the facts. Some RDA money had been abused over time." Simitian described himself as being in the "mend it don't end it" camp on the RDA issue, but he understood the impetus to cut the program.

Understanding, or empathy, was a quality Simitian urged all elected officials to develop. "I'm not talking about the big group hug, fuzzy kind of empathy. The kind of empathy I'm talking about is the ability to comprehend and identify with the problems of others. To negotiate, you need to empathize with the person you're trying to persuade. Local officials need to understand better the circumstances and thoughts that the 120 members of the state legislature are experiencing." That would include the sheer volume of issues they deal with, how challenging it is for them to be in touch with their districts when they have to be in Sacramento, the pressures of interest groups, and the expectations of their leadership, Simitian said. Similarly, he noted that his experience as a school board member, city council member, and county supervisor had helped him empathize with the extraordinary challenges faced by local governments over the past decade.

In general, Simitian suggested that citizens would be better served if officials "made some of these debates less ideological." Lawmaking, he argued is really an exercise in problem solving: "I find that's a helpful way to frame the issue. It avoids the stance of moral superiority and acknowledges areas where we have room for improvement."

Miriam Schulman is assistant director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

February 2013

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