Politics

What I don’t Know about Local Government? Everything.

I live in a managed community that has a homeowners association. I pay a monthly fee and they take care of the community and provide for common use items like play structures, roving (unarmed) security, a pool and a gate at the front road. I have no idea who is in charge. There are elections to elect them. I’ve never voted. I had to opt in to the association when I bought my house.

Yesterday evening when walking back from the park with my son, I noticed that they were removing the lawn in parts of the park and replacing it with drought resistant plants. This will make those parts unusable for kids to play in. They appear to have salvaged the majority of the lawn at the end of my street. But, I’m not sure.

Here’s the thought that walk generated:

I view that space, 50 feet from my home, as a value to my home as it off sets my small yard and allows for a place for my children to play within view from my yard. I don’t know if it’s about to go away in service to saving on irrigation costs. And I don’t know because I don’t pay attention to anything besides paying my bill to my homeowners association. If that space went away tomorrow, it would have a material, daily impact on my life. I don’t pay any attention to the forces at work in that decision. And I have no good reason. I just don’t.

I also couldn’t tell you who the members of my local school board are. Who the members of the city council in my town are. I know who the mayor is because I googled it last month when an old friend of my wife asked if he could put a sign in the yard when he decided to run against her in this year’s primary.

I don’t know who the chief of police is in my town.

I don’t know who my state legislators, for the state that has the fifth largest economy in the world. I know little about my state constitution.

I have a near encyclopedic knowledge of the government of the United States of America and it’s History. But I pay little attention to the things that impact me everyday, like whether or not the homeowners association is going to rip out the park next to my house.

I’m likely an extreme case. My suspicion is that I am not alone though. And I wonder how much of our problems might have better outcomes if that weren’t the case.

5 replies »

  1. I grew up in a very small New England town, and just moved back there after a couple decades living in multiple locations, including Europe. My hometown still holds an annual town meeting, where residents show up in person, go through the town report (budget, proposals, amendments, etc.), discuss it IN PERSON…sometimes “passionately”…and vote on it. Whether you side with the majority or not on any given issue, at the end, you all walk out together, and frequently you enjoy a potluck dinner together, too. Sound archaic? Maybe, but it forces people with different views to articulate them, hash them out, and still be good neighbors to each other when the meeting is over. Wish we could figure out a better way to do this at scale…

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    • Even of you could figure it out at scale, you still need people to agree to participate. Dealing with government is a slog no matter the level. Many people feel that dealing with it, if there is no guarantee of outcome in their favor, just isn’t worth the time.

      Why wasn’t Sean involved before? It takes effort to keep up with anything. We all have limited time after ten hours of work (8 hrs work, 1 hr lunch, 1 hr commute) and eight hours of sleep, I have six hours of “free time”. I choose to spend it with my family (wife, 3-yr old, 22-yr old special needs child) and caring for our animals (2-goats, 1 dog, 1 feral cat).

      I have repeatedly told my wife I am going to a town council meeting. It’s on my way home. I have only been to two in the 12 years I have lived here and both times it was work related so I was paid to be there.

      I do read my local paper and I do send notices of support or opposition when something is going to affect me. However, unless there were a social requirement, like in a small town, it is very difficult to get people to participate in much of anything.

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  2. Once I was a homeowner I tried to keep up.

    I used to keep up with the school board. I live in a very blue Democratic college town. I had a naive view once upon a time that since our town was so progressive that was how the school board was run. Not so.

    I’d contacted the school board on many issues from the math curriculum to issues with how the elementary school was managed.

    Our local school board has very little concern with what actually goes on inside the schools. One of my first naive contacts with them was when my daughter’s second grade teacher went AWOL before the end of the school day and the resulting confusion.

    My daughter is now 20 and from my observation the Board is very concerned about where to build new schools and who should be able to attend them, paying special attention to real estate developers and to a handful of white parents who don’t want their kids to attend school with potential riff raff. Many very important and sometimes costly decisions are made behind closed doors before the public has a chance to offer any input.

    I still have one kid in high school. If you don’t think you’ll be heard or don’t think you and the Board members are on the same age, you give up after a while.

    As a person who attended Catholic schools, I had some very naive views when my kids started school. I thought public schools were interested in offering equality of opportunity which, in my view doesn’t seem to be the case.

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  3. I lived in Silicon Valley for 25 years and I was, like Sean, oblivious to local government. Then I moved to a small town and an HOA-run complex, and decided to pay attention to the people and organizations who could impact my daily life. After 2 years, here’s what I’ve gained.

    I know everyone on my HOA Board and on all the related committees. I know exactly what is planned for my community and why. My neighbors are close friends (I barely knew my Bay Area neighbors). I know who supplies my water, power, and cable services. I know who protects me from fire and weather-related hazards. I also know the people at the post office, the local grocery, the coffee bar, and the sheriff’s office.

    This took some effort on my part, and I fully understand the problem of folks working 80 hr a week who don’t have a minute to spare. But I have never felt more secure and satisfied with my daily life. In the age of Trump, this is an enormous pay-off. My advice – take a baby step–fit in one meeting or one call. You have a tremendous benefit to offer your local community and everyone will be better off if you try.

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  4. In California, there are lots of opportunities to get involved. When it comes to public schools ( as Kate mentions in her comment), there are school level committees called School Site Councils(SSC) that are written into California Ed Code. These committees are composed of all stakeholders: parents, students, teachers and administration. They make school level decisions and sometimes have a small budget to allocate. They are responsible for creating the School Site Plan which outlines the achievements and challenges that their school faces due to their particular situation, and comes up with a plan to tackle these challenges. In addition, a representative from each school SSC in the district, including those in the English Language Advisory Committee, (Called ELAC and a District wide DELAC) make up the LCAP (Local Control Area Plan), which decides how to use federal funds for district specific needs. I have served on two different school SSC for over 10 years and 2 years on LCAP. There really is a lot of input that parents can make that drill into the details of the academic education of our children as well as the social and emotional well-being.

    This is just one small aspect of the many ways we can be involved in the decisions that affect our lives. For me, government is not a THEY, it is a WE. And if WE want our government to work better for us, WE need to stop assuming government is someone else. It is YOU, and your neighbors and other involved people. It is US. I wish there would be as much emphasis that our government officials at every single level are just as patriotic as our military are. Patriotism comes in many forms. Volunteering, or standing for election for even your local HOA or SSC or city council are a very important form of patriotism.

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