The Seven Walls of Local Government; Wall #1: Public Indifference

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A little while ago a friend of mine passed along a copy of an unpublished essay penned by now deceased J. H. Habermeyer, a professor of Political Science and Economics at RPI for many years. The Seven Walls of Local Government is a short, engaging and literary essay on the ways that local government erects defenses around its doings and, ultimately, how bureaucracies and bureaucrats use different techniques to obscure, obfuscate, defend, and protect themselves in what they do. The literary trope is The Wall.

I will present Professor Habermeyer’s essay in seven appropriate installments. The first portion includes his pithy introduction. Here it is.


The Seven Walls of Local Government

There is an old adage in political science circles that the business of government is to keep its business secret. This is so universally true that the idea has indeed become axiomatic – even among those for whom such a notion is not one to cause disapprobation. And yet, in a democracy, the instruments of government are theoretically answerable to a sovereignty that inheres in the people. Therefore, in a democratic government the niceties of popular participation must be paid obeisance while the individual government activities themselves will remain obscured by the clouds of procedural complexity, alleged expertise and technical obfuscation; thus: to represent government affairs through a glass, darkly.

This peculiar dance is found only in democracies. Totalitarian regimes don’t concern themselves with such refinements and the inhabitants and rulers in those regimes hardly even bother to pay lip-service to any institutions that purport to promote “citizen” involvement in government. In the Communist world these facades seem to be erected principally to annoy Western observers.

Nowhere is the interesting paradox better illustrated than the way that local governments in the United States deal with the thorny problem of excluding substantive citizen scrutiny and involvement, while ostensibly promoting it.

The precincts of local government may be conceived as a citadel comprised of seven concentric walls protecting the inner sanctum sanctorum.  As the inner rings tighten, so the width of the gate in each shrinks. Each wall defends the denizens of the citadel from outside scrutiny, criticism and retribution. Each wall serves to protect the citadel by winnowing out potential invaders who will find it increasingly onerous to pass through the portal in each of the seven perimeter fences.

It is, of course, a given, that at just about any particular time a majority of elected representatives in each government have abdicated their own representation of popular sovereignty to the greater good of defending the citadel from their own constituents. This situation is in no way peculiar; in fact, it is the rare case indeed where a significant minority, let alone a real majority of public representatives are willing to put their obligation to the public ahead of their fealty to the established bureaucratic order. This situation reflects fascinating psychological and practical political topics in its own right, but will these will not be addressed in this essay.        

The First Wall

It’s an ironic and sad fact that the first and most effective barrier to public participation and oversight of government activity is largely erected by the public. This wall is the institutionalization of ignorance and apathy on the part of the public itself – a public that chooses to be unaware of what is going on and/or is either too lazy to participate, or is resigned to the fact that participation doesn’t matter. To the extent that the other six walls are effective such apathy is certainly understandable. To the extent that this is used as a pretext for laziness, it is reprehensible. Governments can be relied upon to use, and abuse this apathy.

It is now typical for local government jurisdictions to publicize and notify the public of their doings. We may rest assured that such ostensible transparency was never initiated by governments themselves, but rather was imposed by well-meaning reformers. Yet it is part of the cost of entertaining the democratic ideal. In any case, the annoyance is comparatively small and the payoff in validation is enormous.

In many cases legal requirements now require publication of municipal government actions in newspapers of local circulation. Certain actions must be advertised by posting signs within the vicinity of effected property. Local councils will post copies of their agendas on the premises and mimeographed copies of agenda materials may be acquired, usually at a cost, by interested citizens. These rules and practices, while followed by jurisdictions according to law or custom, can be generally counted on to follow bare minimum standards. Whether posted notices remain posted, whether anybody reads the tiny print in the newspaper, and whether anybody can make it over to the town council to read the agenda is a matter of indifference to local decision makers.

Once such materials are perused another problem immediately becomes apparent. This is the use of incomprehensible governmental jargon that can be counted upon by its practitioners to help intimidate or bamboozle the public. This rather picaresque fraud is one of the most effective arrows in the bureaucracy’s quiver. The deployment of  pseudo-technical jargon, confusing acronyms, and a torrent of useless verbiage in government reports, publications, and notices can surely be relied upon to dissuade all but the most intrepid to attempt to fathom the sacred mysteries therein described.

While it is clearly not practical to individually notify every citizen of every impending action or policy decision, it is cynical indeed to pretend that the bare minimum notifications and descriptions as they are typically pursued constitutes informing the public. And this is where the consequences of an apathetic citizenry come into effect: the vast majority of a political division may have deliberately and effectively disenfranchised itself of what should be a sovereign authority. Is it adequate to merely acknowledge representative republican government and walk away from the responsibility of further participation? The answer is clearly: no.

At this juncture I note the rare occurrence of wide public participation in isolated and pointedly controversial issues. When some potentially obnoxious land use is proposed by the local authority, or some new and annoying public levy is in the offing,  it is not uncommon for the folk of a community to rouse themselves into a state of political agitation. In these rare instances the bureaucracy that proposes such activity must brace itself for initial public discomfiture and will rely upon the remaining six walls to defend its proposed activity. In many such cases, the public outcry subsides quickly; rarely does it not. If the public outrage reaches a sufficient crescendo some electoral change – aside from the normally scheduled ballot – may be occasioned.  In this instance the popular sovereignty is very much exercised, and to the self-satisfaction of the participants. Their subsequent and speedy return to political somnambulism goes to reinforce the idea that spasmodic public participation, while perfectly justified, represents a very ineffective weapon against the inertia of government process.

The Seven Walls of Local Government

Wall #2: Bread or Circus? >>


38 Replies to “The Seven Walls of Local Government; Wall #1: Public Indifference”

  1. Just think this was probably written decades before public employees unionized and started electing their own council members!

    1. But at least then there was generally a local paper that actually did news. We don’t even have that.

    1. Ha, just looked at that video. “The Unorganized Taxpayers vs The Very Organized Unions?” Try “The EXTREMELY Organized Conservative/Corporatist/Teabag Movement vs. the Unions.”

      There will be blood, though…

    1. Looks like you’ve already had a few too many drinks today Vern. How were those baloney sandwiches in jail?

        1. It’s true. You didn’t contribute anything to the debate for months. How was tossing the salad in county? I heard you like French dressing the best

          1. Vern, you’re a good writer/blogger, don’t waste your time responding to these bendejos. They probably envy you.

          2. You’re right of course. This guy is a Whistling Weenie from Planet W, in the immortal Words of Walt Whitman. The one person in the OC who hates me, but is too chickenshit to say it to my face. He can kiss my ass.

  2. Re: public notification: “the annoyance is comparatively small and the payoff in validation is enormous.”

    Absolutely brilliant observation. So often the most damaging aspects of a proposed change are buried in the minutiae of the supporting documentation, easily and purposefully ignored until it’s too late. Anyone who complains is told that “the process” was followed, so go pound sand.

    1. “…’the process’ was followed, so go pound sand.”

      Oh, yes. Wait for future walls…

  3. OK. Who really wrote this and when? I can’t find anyone with that name on the Google. And what is RDI? And what gives Sipowicz the idea this was written decades ago? Is this Desert Rat pretending somebody else wrote his stuff? Inquiring minds…

    1. What don’t you understand about an unpublished paper by a dead guy?

      If anyone would have an unpublished essay from a dead guy, it would be Joe.

    2. Vern, I saw the word “mimeograph” and googled it. Nobody has seen one of those in at least 40 years!

  4. Leave it to the Best Blog in OC to dig up such insightful and relevant commentary from the deceased. Thanks FFFF!

  5. Vern said: “Funny, every word of this also strikes this Progressive Democrat as right on.”

    Unless it is the prog dems who are in charge and pulling this type of s**t – which we live with in Santa Ana.

  6. “…ignorance and apathy on the part of the public itself – a public that chooses to be unaware of what is going on and/or is either too lazy to participate, or is resigned to the fact that participation doesn’t matter.”

    That pretty well describes Fullerton!

    Do you know what City Council plans to do with your money tomorrow? The Council hasn’t a clue but staff sure does…

    1. “That pretty well describes Fullerton!”, and every other city across this land we call USA.

      Christian, please let us know what staff has in store for us on tomorrows agenda. If you do, it’s just one less wall we’ll have to climb to get engaged.

    2. Interesting note: Of the numerous applicants to the Transportation and Circulation Commission the top two picks are a graphic designer and paralegal. The graphic designer who is also a former OCTA employee used Assemblyman Jose Solario and former Council Member Pam Keller as references. The Paralegal is a former Fullerton PD cadet and then Tustin PD dispatcher. A runner-up for the position is a SCAG employee and urban planner. And these are the most qualified candidates? Why are there no traffic engineers?

      The investment policy, item 3 of this week’s agenda was brought before the Investment Advisory Committee who approved it. Unlike other reports given to council without the benefit of some technical review this seems to have been somewhat vetted. One concern we should all have is why the Redevelopment Agency would invest any public money in anything other than the redevelopment project areas.

      Agenda item 5 is an iniquitous little gem of tax spending which we should be pay some attention to. The title, MEASURE M FUNDING RENEWAL, certainly doesn’t sound like anything a Fullerton resident or business owner would be concerned with. However, that same apathy is what has lead to Fullerton’s current condition. Item 5 suggests that nearly 2/3 of all Fullerton roads need repair and that the estimated cost over the next two years would be about $216-MILLION! Where will this $216-MILLION come from? You, the taxpayer, through the OCTA.

      Also included in item 5 is a 7-year CIP. Just like our current 5-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) which council approved two weeks ago without the benefit of public input, this 7-year CIP was not presented to the Infrastructure Review Committee. So, it’s anyone’s guess if the CIP addresses our needs or just the needs of City Hall bureaucrats. According to the Pavement Management Program, the cost to repair our roads is estimated at $221.4-MILLION. The Program, authored by Nichols Consulting Engineers, states “Our analysis shows that it would cost the City approximately $221.4 million over the next seven years to bring the network up to a PCI of 84 from a current PCI of 63 (PCI = pavement condition index). These costs significantly exceed the City s current funding levels.” That begs the question, what will the City do to repair our roads with nearly half needing major reconstruction?

      Item 6 is by all accounts a Chaffee legacy. Back in 2008, then Planning Commissioner Doug Chafee, voted to deny approval of a tentative parcel map on one of his mom’s old properties. First, it’s odd that a man who (with the help of his mother) made his living by developing and redeveloping properties into low-income high-density subdivisions and then would object to the resubdividing of a 30,000-sqft lot into 3 single-family homes. But, Chaffee, despite having a conflict of interest, did vote to kill the development. The owner appealed to the City Council who also killed the project. Subsequently, the owner sued the City and won. Oh, and the “property agent”…Leland Wilson. How’s that for a who’s who of Fullerton? Leading the charge for the City Council to kill the deal is our old friend Shawn Nelson who doesn’t live up to his outspoken stance on “property rights”. Oddly, Bankhead’s statement at 2:26:00 makes a lot of sense regarding yet another law suit. The residents in the neighborhood may get upset about the proposed development. (


      Item 7 will spend upwards of $250,000 to repave and landscape the alley behind Branagan’s, Revolucion, and other College Town watering holes to create a fresh canvas for the weekly blood and vomit donations. No word on whether the contractor plans to install an automated flushing system.

      Item 8 is a public safety issue funded by the Feds and OCTA. No need to look further, right? Wrong! This is the video system designed to prevent crime in and the train station and parking structures. The pros: we already paid for the system through the Feds and OCTA; the system might deter certain kinds of criminals. The cons: cameras alone do not stop rapes, robberies, or murders. It takes officers on the ground and in the area to intervene. Fullerton is already shorthanded so we shouldn’t expect anything to change
      We don’t have enough cops to police our bars (maybe because they’re busy beating up and robbing handcuffed prisoners, raiding the homes of preachers, or intimidating children who play with toy guns) much less watch video monitors and patrol parking structures. And another con: the CIP funding is inadequate to address our current needs so how will the City afford to maintain and repair the system once the service contract expires?

      Item 9 seeks to spend $708,000 to repave Commonwealth from Magnolia to Dale. Finally, an expenditure that makes sense.

      Item 10 will dole out $3,285,227.00 to three lucky contractors for work at the new Community Center. It’s just a drop in the bucket of the $23,900,000.00 project total.

      Item 11 is the 2010 Urban Water Management Plan. Although logic would dictate that the plan is either a year late or should be renamed the 2011 Urban Water Management Plan, when has the City ever implored logic? (see item 9 above) The Plan is State mandated infrastructure planning document that incorporates MWD, OC Water District and other agencies’ plans. It includes an element regarding desalination.

      Remember all those times Doc Jones said that we are m-a-n-dated to provide low-income housing? Well, item 12 is what I think he was referring to. If we apply for and receive certain federal funds for housing, we have to spend it on low-income housing with lots of federal strings and bureaucracy attached. This is a one year plan on what we need to do and how we will use the federal funds if they are granted to us.

  7. and still there is more…
    Item 13 will export one low-income family to Anaheim and jockey three others into other neighborhoods in Fullerton. It’s a relocation plan so that the Redevelopment Agency can tear down a 4-plex and build their own stucco box. The relocation is expected to cost us $122,000.

    Item 14 is a balance fund policy to make Fullerton’s financial reporting more standardized.

    Item 15 is the City’s all new Outdoor Dinning Guidelines and Right-of-Way Encroachment. I wasn’t aware that outdoor dining required guidelines but City Hall must know best… According to Director Hoppe, the new policy plan should make patios like the one at Roscoe’s easier to approve. I wonder if the Planning Commission had a stab at this?

    Item 16 is the Pooch Park management agreement. If history has taught us anything it is that our City can screw up even the simplest agreement. I love dogs but I’m not so sure about the Pooch Park agreement.

    Item 17 is a Redevelopment Agency gem. $970,000 will be spent drafting the CollegeTown Specific Plan. $370,000 will come from Fullerton taxpayers. The balance will come from CSUF and Hope International University. When the planning consultants pitched the idea at students, I wonder if they mentioned the cost of the development would be paid through higher tuition. Probably not.

    How about $369,309 to intervene in the lives of 50 kids between the ages of 8 and 13 to provide “comprehensive social support and case management services”? The kids must live south of Chapman and between State College and Dale. 10-year old wannabe gang bangers in Sunny Hills do not qualify. Item 18 is a shining example of our City’s “excellent” planning. Staff have already hired to case managers and have contacted 9 elementary schools in the area and this is the first time the Council sees this? They failed to contact Raymond School which is on Chapman and serves neighborhoods south of Chapman. Perhaps city staff is confident that Raymond School doesn’t have any gang culture in their classrooms. Maybe Fullerton School Board Member Chris Thompson can answer that question?? Maybe this is the first he has heard of this? The staff report says that the kids receive certain benefits. “Each child will receive all of the comprehensive service components. These services include social support, family services, education services, after school and summer activities, mentoring, community policing enhanced enforcement, and incentives. Youth involved in the juvenile justice system will receive juvenile justice intervention.”

    Last on the agenda is item 19 and is aptly title “COMMUNICATING WITH CITIZENS”. Funny how that’s the LAST item on the agenda. Just goes to show you how staff feels about the importance of communicating with the public. The staff report says they want to implement a new email subscription service (about ten years late) and it discusses other means of communicating public notices and press releases. I find it deplorable that the bulk of the press releases are for announcing when Council Member Quirk-Silva will be out at the watering hole to answer questions. Rarely will you find one from the PD or FD. Parks & Rec likes to use them for their special events.

    Now that my day is shot, I think I’ll order another mai tai.

    1. “Maybe Fullerton School Board Member Chris Thompson can answer that question?? Maybe this is the first he has heard of this? The staff report says that the kids receive certain benefits. “Each child will receive all of the comprehensive service components. These services include social support, family services, education services, after school and summer activities, mentoring, community policing enhanced enforcement, and incentives. Youth involved in the juvenile justice system will receive juvenile justice intervention.”

      Sounds a lot like a “Collaborative” project. And now I’m more of me than ever before.

  8. You guys all learned well the major lesson of 12 years of schooling: there’s nothing you can do about anything, so you might as well just have fun saying smart things to each other. Verbal spit balls at the “establishment,” which mean as much and accomplish as much as real spit balls.

    PMS for men: pseudo-macho syndrome.

  9. Very interesting…and entertaining. Query, does this tome advocate for more ‘democracy’? It appears so to me. I suggest, if interested, googling ‘democracy vs. republic’. I think the results will be enlightening.

    1. Doesn’t seem to be advocating anything. Just describing reality.

      If anything he he seems to be indirectly advocating more accountability from the electeds.

  10. Perhaps. Whenever I hear the discussion go towards citizens vs. gov’t I try to listen for the concept of ‘majority rule’ and it’s context hence the distinction of democracy vs. republic.

    Not an inconsequential distinction BTW.

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