Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | February 24, 2009

Are you doing your job?

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” ~ Winston Churchill

The Morgan Hill Times recently ran a web poll that was not meant to measure opinion but to measure knowledge. While hardly scientific, the poll results gave sad credence to Winston Churchill’s depressing statement.

The web poll asked, “Who has oversight of the Santa Clara Valley Water District board of directors?” and gave five possible answers: The state, county supervisors, Morgan Hill city council, voters, and President Obama. Almost half of the respondents — 48 percent — incorrectly selected county supervisors as the correct answer. Less than a quarter — 24 percent — chose the right answer: voters.

While it’s true that the county supervisors used to have perfunctory — I’m tempted to call it rubber-stamp — review responsibility for the water district’s budget, they gave up that role a few years ago. County supervisors never had responsibility for water district operations.

And really, the correct answer — voters — should apply to any government agency.

“The short memories of American voters is what keeps our politicians in office.” ~ Will Rogers

If we’re upset with how things are being run in at any government agency, we voters have the power and the responsibility to make changes.

If we’re upset about constant water district price increases that outstrip inflation coming from an agency that is poorly managed and filled with extremely well-compensated employees, we have only ourselves to blame. If we don’t pay attention to what’s happening at the agency — and most of us don’t — and we constantly re-elect the same board members to oversee it — and we do — of course water district officials don’t feel any need to change their ways. Witness the 11 percent rate increase just proposed for South County water wholesalers like the cities of Gilroy and Morgan Hill. North County water wholesalers are facing a 15 percent increase.

If we’re upset about how our representatives in Sacramento are managing the state, we can use the initiative process to change the state Constitution to remove the ridiculous, anti-democratic (note the small “D” used quite purposely there), hamstringing provision that requires a two-thirds majority to pass a budget. And we can communicate with our representatives, monitor what they’re doing, and, if we don’t like it, vote them out.

The importance of accountability to voters is why I favor directly electing Valley Transportation Authority board members. Currently, member cities’ councils appoint VTA trustees. That’s not the only governance change needed – the method of grouping small cities that disenfranchises entire cities and, in the case of South County, an entire region, for years at a time also needs reform.

With an appointed VTA board, the lines of accountability are so obscured as to be meaningless. If you don’t like the way your city councilman voted on a VTA item — assuming you’re lucky enough to have representation on the VTA board at that particular time — but like what this person did on most city issues, how do you hold your council member responsible? If VTA trustees were directly elected, the lines of accountability between voters and trustees would be crystal clear. But, our democracy requires an engaged, informed electorate to be effective, and that’s something that many folks are unwilling to become.

One of the many reasons that I was enthusiastic about Barack Obama’s candidacy was that he inspired so many to become involved in the political process for the first time. But it’s not enough to be informed and involved only when rock star videos and a charismatic candidate make voting and public policy glamorous, or when an inept administration fouls things up so much that the situation is impossible to ignore.

We voters need to be engaged on the mundane, boring, rubber-meets-the-road issues like water district financing, and two-thirds majority rules for budget passage, and VTA board structure. If we’re not, we get mismanaged, irresponsible agencies that operate with little or no oversight.

The job of overseeing our government belongs to us. The job of overseeing our government belongs to us. It’s a job we ought to take seriously because the future of our democracy is at stake.

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” ~ John F. Kennedy

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