(Ed. note: this post was first made on July 5th 2011 – a date that should resonate with Fullertonions; FFFF republished it in 2016; and now, given the City Council’s decision to employ legal harassment against FFFF bloggers, we repost, the themes in the essay being more apropos than ever )
And now Friends, here is installment #6 of Professor J.H. Habermeyer’s engaging essay on the relationship of local government agencies with their constituents.
The Sixth Wall
As we have already seen, the local government has formidable resources at its disposal to protect itself in its undertakings, no matter how inimical those doings may be to the very taxpayers who are footing the bill to defend them. And nowhere is this better illustrated than in the utilization by the bureaucracy of the legal system to thwart, frustrate, outlast, and outspend any civic opposition.
First I will note that judges are habitually riding calvary-like to the aid of fellow government authority. This is seen in the way that government action, often of dubious legal or constitutional foundation is tolerated with the tacit understanding that we need government and thus we need the people who run it; thus the individuals symbolize the institution and both must be protected for the common good of having government itself. It is a very egregious offense indeed that will cause a judge to act in a way that could undermine confidence in the very government of which he is a part.
And so judges themselves can be counted upon to defer to the bureaucrats and their experts and dispose of all sorts of embarrassing obstacles that separate a government from its desired object. Constitutional Amendments 4, 5 and 14 in particular seem to be the most annoying impediments, and are thus brushed aside with the most regularity. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the way our country’s police collect evidence and the way that urban renewal fiascoes have wreaked havoc on the very cities they were meant to revitalize; both with the disconcerting approbation of the nation’s jurists.
But to even advance to a courtroom takes time and money, again, two resources that the government agency has in abundance and which opponents can usually be counted upon to have very little. A city has its own attorney; if needed outside counsel may be employed at the taxpayer’s expense, which is to say at the expense of the very people who have shown the temerity to seek legal redress!
If, once before a judge, the nearly impossible occurs, and the opponents win a courtroom victory, the agency can be relied upon to seek appeal to a higher court, running up more cost and draining its antagonists even farther.
The spectacle of free citizens in a democracy suing their own government is not a pretty one and while public agencies will avoid it, once joined, it is a battle that they will never voluntarily quit: for defeat means professional humiliation and a chink in the armor of their alleged expertise and professionalism. There is no cheap lawyer’s trick they will not deploy to win, including technicalities in the law that work to their advantage and to the disadvantage of their supposed employers.
It is a desperate man who engages his own government in a legal dispute.
Friends, for the past couple weeks I’ve been out in the lonely salt flats and rocky wastes of the great Mojave searching for new zinc veins; so now I belatedly bring you the final installment of Professor J.H Habermeyer’s entertaining essay on the means and methods local government deploys to do what it wants, to get what it desires, and to abuse those who oppose it. Here is the Seventh and final wall.
The Seventh Wall
We have reviewed the myriad ways that local governments obfuscate what they do and then defend their actions against the very citizenry that has placed its faith in the charming swindle known as participatory democracy. The process is one of systematically winnowing out ever smaller numbers of remaining opposition through all sorts of clever tactics that include preying upon citizen apathy, bamboozling the public with unfathomable pseudo-technical jargon, delaying, temporizing, and even legal hair splitting that would make any Philadelphia lawyer proud.
Finally we come to the seventh and final wall that the bureaucracies of local government have erected about themselves and that provides the ultimate protection of the citadel, the sanctum sanctorum, the Holy of Holies. This final palisade is constituted of the legal and practical insulation in which the government functionaries have enveloped themselves.
It is well-known that government employees are cocooned in the protections afforded the “civil service.” This insulation provides great protection and engenders great arrogance. While politicians are theoretically answerable to the public, public employees, practically, answer to nobody. Practice and law provides effective shields to these denizens of the citadel.
The police structure can be counted upon to cover up, obscure, and ultimately exonerate instances of corruption and physical brutalization of perpetrators and innocent, alike. How? Because sham investigations are performed by other police like “Internal Affairs” and the local District Attorney – fellow members of the law enforcement fraternity who use each other symbiotically.
Likewise the urban renewal bureaucrats and land planners who devise titanic fiascoes affecting the lives and livelihoods of hundreds if not thousands of people are protected from public wrath and disapprobation. Their mantra is to look forward not backward; that hindsight is eagle-eyed; that lessons learned will provide a guide for the future; and most comically, that their projects would have worked but for lack of adequate funding. The vehicle known as local government has no rear view mirror, and no matter how rickety the contraption is, its operators will never cast a backwards glance. Thus the great open air civic center mausoleums and dysfunctional ghetto-creating human warehouse projects that should have worked in theory but that failed in practice dot the urban landscape while the perpetrators thereof suffer no rebuke for their manifest failures. In fact they are apt to give each other self-congratulatory awards and accolades!
Layer upon layer of onerous regulations will be promulgated by compliant politicians and then used, and abused, by the bureaucracy with an autocratic arrogance against which the citizenry has little effective recourse; for the guardians of the citadel cannot be held accountable.
In the last analysis, the agents of local authority take their decisions with impunity. They have invested nothing in the expensive mistakes that will cost the taxpayers plenty. There being no practical difference for the bureaucracy between success and failure, we may be sure that strategies based on arbitrary whims, and not sound financial or economic judgment will be propounded. The consequent failures and municipal catastrophes will result in no opprobrium, let alone fiscal detriment, falling upon the decision makers.
Inside the seventh wall the air is rarefied, indeed. Those securely ensconced within its sacred precincts look down upon those outside the citadel with the resigned noblesse and disdain of the mandarin. They are from the government and they are here to help.
Here, Friends, is the 5th installment of Professor J.H. Habermeyer’s scintillating essay on the seven figurative walls local government builds to protect itself from outside scrutiny and public oversight.
The 5th Wall
Having passed through the gauntlet of the four previous barriers erected to ward off our curiosity about what goes on inside the halls of local power, we are now confronted by the 5th wall. This wall consists of the impediments in the way of organized resistance.
The individual who has braved the ambuscades and man-traps placed in his way by the local bureaucracy has now learned that, mirabile dictu, he is not alone! Others of like mind have appeared along side him, to inquire, protest, admonish, to seek redress or even an iota of accountability from the local authority. There is nothing quite as reassuring as knowing that one’s misery enjoys company.
It is a well-known fact that in local government affairs any aroused amalgam of people is much stronger than the mere sum of its parts, and produces fear according to its numerical strength. This is because a group, unlike an individual, cannot be easily dismissed as a lone crank; and a united group, especially one with a name, suggests some other unknown number of silent supporters who at any moment may descend upon the town council or school board meeting.
But organization, with its attendant strength, also suffers from a concomitant weakness, to wit: keeping a band cohesive requires persistence and energy; time and lack of pecuniary resources are the enemy of both. Those inside the wall have all the resources at their disposal necessary to attain their goals in the face of opposition. Those outside the fifth wall do not. The fact that the government will use the resources extracted from the taxpayers, including the very wealth of its opponents, adds delicious irony to the utterly unequal engagement about to begin!
Temporizing, stalling, confusing, pettifogging are all the stock in trade of those in government. They can, and will, if opposition mounts, resort to tactics that will remind one of Dickens’ Bleak House, or better yet, Kafka’s The Trial. The aim, of course, is to outlast the opposition; to watch it dissolve, as it will inevitably do through natural entropy. Some may be appeased though co-option; others may drop away because of life’s other pressing business, or through resignation. But you may successfully wager that those inside the citadel will never resign, and have no more pressing business than to maintain control over the reigns of power.
Lower committee decisions may be appealed to a higher authority, of course – if you have the time and can afford the appeals fee. Studies may be commissioned by those in authority with no other purpose than to forestall action. The opposition may even be engaged in a cynical, time-consuming pas de deux only meant to drag out proceedings while attempting to appear conciliatory. In the end the result will almost invariably be the same: a dragged out “process” that ends exactly the way the bureaucracy want it to, the opposition having withered away.
It’s time, Friends, for the fourth installment of Professor J.H. Habermeyer’s eloquent essay about the fortresses local government bureaucracies erect around themselves in their relationship with their own constituents. And what erections they are!
The Fourth Wall
Let us now recapitulate our history of public participation in local government affairs. Public apathy, official obfuscation, physical and bureaucratic intimidation have weeded out almost the entire population of the commonwealth. And yet, to the consternation of the denizens of the citadel, not all have bowed their heads in submission to the purported expertise of the purported experts.
The few survivors who have passed through the bureaucratic gauntlet have not been cowed by process or pabulum. They press their case and may do so effectively. The common local government species known as the gadfly may be dismissed without further ado. These irritants are the boils on the bottom of the body politic who, likely as not, suffer from personal issues of megalomania and narcissism; they are annoying, but not life threatening. The challenge, rather, is with the informed and militant citizen who is demonstrably not suffering from dementia and who, once aroused, is not likely to demur to the “professionals” and who may very well re-appear on particularly inopportune occasion.
What to do?
The answer is to asphyxiate the irritant in a smothering embrace; to draw said miscreant into the circle of government itself by appointing this him to some footling committee or other, thereby causing him to voluntarily silence himself in deference to the grand fraternity to which he has been officially welcomed. He has a name plate; perhaps even a coveted parking space! Many an underdeveloped and agitated ego has been assuaged by such a maneuver and its proprietor thereby silenced.
Even more subtle is the way that the political realm offers its siren song to those recently initiated to the world of public affairs. The electoral process can be counted upon to woo those infected by the virus of newly discovered political ambition. And, if by some strange twist, one of these individuals should be rewarded with electoral success, the chances of a quick devolution into the typical public servant are high, indeed. And why not? Such an individual, unless unusually perspicacious and independent will soon find himself at the mercy of his bureaucracy!
Nothing is quite as demoralizing as the sight of a once independent spirit “going native” as our cousins across the Atlantic refer to the syndrome. And yet it happens all the time. And thus a potential adversary is subsumed into the system.
Here is the third installment of Professor J.H. Habermeyer’s essay on the means and methods local government uses to keep the citizenry at bay.
The Third Wall
Once the vast majority of potential scrutineers has been successively winnowed out by its own indifference, by pseudo-technical obfuscation, and by awkward meeting times, a hardy type of citizen remains: the man who has steeled himself to learn of an issue; who has cut through enough of the bureaucratic gobbledygook to have at least a passing familiarity with the gist of the topic; and who has rearranged a busy schedule to attend a hearing on said subject.
The Hearing! And now we advance apace to confront perhaps the cruelest hoax in the the local government’s repertoire.
We are all familiar with the quaint image of the New England township or village council meeting: a handful of honest selectmen addressing themselves and the town’s business to their neighbors. Such an ennobling image is now a far cry from the typical local government meeting that is run by professional bureaucrats employed for their alleged expertise, and whose arrogance has been fermented by years of education, training, and wielding of this “expertise” – regardless of the selfish likes or dislikes of their agency’s constituents.
The modern public hearing is run much more like a corporate board meeting than the picturesque town council pow-wow described above. And like any corporate executive conducting a board meeting, woe unto the chief bureaucrat who permits an item onto a public meeting agenda about which he has not fully briefed his political overlords and about which he is confident of majority, or ideally unanimous, approbation!
Once he ventures into the chambers of his elected officials, our intrepid citizen quickly notices that the seats reserved for these elected officials are elevated upon a dais, above those seated in the audience. These august personages are surrounded by their professional advisors and are physically separated from their constituents. This is telling. Very often the municipal executive himself is elevated, too – demarcating his stature as an equal with the elected representatives, and apart from the common herd.
And then the meeting commences: a scripted performance that puts the observer in mind of the heavily stylized kabuki; or, perhaps an Oscar Wilde drawing room farce without the wit. Very often the elected officials will read from actual scripts prepared for them by the bureaucrats. It is an embarrassing, but necessary price to pay to make sure the proper liturgical rites are observed.
The Deity is invoked; the Pledge of Allegiance recited. Thus the Almighty and the spirit of patriotism infuse the room – lending authority, sacred and profane, to the goings on.
The staff presents its proposals. The rhetoric and confoundation will put any self-respecting pettifogging lawyer to shame. Pre-arranged questions are posed and pre-arranged answers are produced. When necessary, witnesses are brought forth to shore up the credibility of the government. They, too have been bought and paid for with taxpayer’s money.
It hardly matters whether the answers are responsive or not. For any answer is seemingly good enough, and the more incomprehensible the better: comprehension on the part of the public would presuppose intellectual equality.
Finally it is the public’s turn to opine. Those who have endured the inconvenience of place and time will get to speak and ask questions themselves. Since many are made acutely uncomfortable by public speaking and some contemplate it with outright dread more potential critics are screened out; others will be intimidated by the surroundings or by the supposed expertise of the government’s phalanx of experts and lawyers. Even so, some may very likely remain.
Unlike the elected representative, the citizen has only a limited time to address his government and his questions may or may not be answered, depending on the whim of the chair. Finally, when the public is done the hearing is closed and the board blithely returns to its business and takes its pro forma vote. The dues required by the democratic republic have been paid.
As promised, here is the second installment of J.H. Habermeyer’s engaging essay on the methods local government uses to dissuade public dissent and protect itself and its undertakings.
The Second Wall
Now that the vast majority of qualified electors has decided to voluntarily to disenfranchise itself, and now that the bureaucrats have thoroughly confounded others with incomprehensible nonsense in the form of official reports, studies and agenda materials, we will address ourselves to the most charming scam perpetrated by local government – the charade known as the public meeting.
The meeting itself shall be addressed in the next section. Now I propose to discuss the scheduling aspects of the meeting: the Planning Commission may meet at 1:30 in the afternoon; the County Commissioners may meet at 9:00 in the morning; the City Council may start meetings at 4:00 PM.
You can successfully wager that the bureaucrats will be there in force, for they are being remunerated for their presence, as are any of the expensive expert consultants they have engaged to provide a professional imprimatur for their agenda. Will the public be there?
Fortunately for those inside the citadel, many, if not most electors have mortgages and bills, and other such economic irritations that necessitate gainful employment. Few employers will countenance an employee’s absence to attend the myriad public hearings held at all levels of a local government during working hours – often the very same meetings in which the initial inertial momentum is created for whatever project the bureaucracy is pursuing. That the quotidian necessities of life preclude the attendance of many citizens at meetings is never off the minds of those who schedule public meetings.
An ostensibly helpful government body may elect to hold meetings at a more convenient hour, such as in the evening, but we may be confident that many other items will be crowded on the agenda like so many shipwreck survivors on a small raft. And can John Q. Public get there soon enough after work and a hurried meal? Can he stay late enough to hear the item of particular interest to him? His potential antagonists have all the time in the world; does he?
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.
Over five years years ago this blog published an essay (broken into bite-sized pieces) on the subject of local government and how it exercises its ability to effectively marginalize and ultimately disenfranchise the very citizens it is supposed to be working for. It is called The Seven Walls of Local Government and it has both scholarly and entertainment value.
For the reawakening of the blog from its almost four-year snooze, I propose to re-schedule this masterpiece for the edification of the Friends. Stay tuned.
Jesus Silva, Jennifer Fitzgerald and Ahmad Zahra just manipulated you and the entire city for the sole purpose of putting Jan Flory back on city council.
Jan (Staff is the heart of the city) Flory.
Jan (3% at 50 Pension Crisis) Flory.
Jan (Hold no one accountable ever) Flory.
This woman was and will be a train wreck for council because she has zero regard for our budgets, has never shown a desire to hold people accountable and is nothing but a shill for those who are supposed to work for us.
I’m not sure why Zahra would have neutered himself by giving FitzSilva their third vote on every agenda item. I’m not sure why Zahra would have given Chevron 3 votes to develop Coyote Hills when he campaigned against that issue.
I’m not sure why Zahra would have switched in less than a month from a man of votings rights and constitutional principles to selling out and playing along in a mockery of an appointment process.
No. Sorry, I am sure why. Ahmad Zahra is just another in a long line of hacks who will lecture us from the dais while having no principles himself. Just like his pal Josh Newman – another self-righteous and pompous ass who thinks it’s okay to lie to your face as long as it gets him into power and the good graces of his corrupt party. He’ll spout wiki-quotes and nonsense for the sole reason of justifying his incompetence and malfeasance.
Zahra can preen and pretend to care about our budget all he wants. He can use whatever emotional ploy to try and justify an appointment process. What he cannot do is pretend that the reasons for an appointment excuse his actions in participating in a farce of a process that was the antithesis of the open and transparent system we were promised.
Editor’s Note: We, like you, are a little tired of last minute complex topics tossed into an agenda dripping with staff’s obfuscation and drowned in legalese. We’ve recruited a former policy aide to provide FFFF readers with some perspective on current and emerging issues to be placed before the Fullerton City Council over the course of the next year. Our retired insider published a list of 100 topics for discussion yesterday.
This is the first post in a series to talk about policy impacting our budget and our lives. Say what you’d like about FFFF’s motives, but if we don’t break this stuff down to talk about it, who will?
With that, here’s The Fullerton Bagman with Council’s first item to resolve next year.
I’ve been involved in government for a long time. Sometimes it’s a great experience, sometimes it’s not. For those of you familiar with this blog’s coverage of The Seven Walls of Government, this is what we’ll be confronting directly.
I don’t expect anyone in Fullerton to actually scale all seven walls and affect change, but I will equip you with a bare minimum necessary to side-step staff reports and speak to the issue at hand. Council may still ignore you, but at least you won’t be dependent upon drinking from their tainted well to quench the crushing thirst of ignorance.
Going forward, I and other members of the FFFF staff will provide you with a standardized one or two page summary of a critical issue facing Fullerton, free of bureaucratic interference and gobbledygook.
Issue #1: Council Vacancy Appointment
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
As a result of Jesus Silva winning election as District 3’s elected representative, he must vacate his current at-large elected seat. This results in four elected officials on a body with five seats.
All decisions require a majority vote (2 of 3, 3 of 4, or 3 of 5) of Council, with some votes requiring three votes specifically. With an empty seat on Council, some issues may not get resolved because of a 2-2 split or a 2-1 split in the case of a recusal for items requiring three votes.
In the case of a split, by law, the Council’s official action is to take no action.