Local Politics: Ignore it at Your Own Risk – Part 1

Local politics are, well, local.  Understandably, they usually receive less attention, less media coverage than state and national politics.

But that does not make it any less important.  On the contrary, that is where the Ordinary Citizen can be most politically influential.  It is where the rubber meets the road.  Often times, literally.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from my involvement in the Tea Party movement is a realization that local politics is where I need to focus my efforts.  For me, it’s become an imperative because I’ve realized that with all the attention focused on state and national issues, ignoring the local political dynamic can be catastrophic for a community.

Case in point: Bell, California.

My brother who lives on the West Coast, brought the story of political scandal in Bell to my attention.  Granted, it’s not a new story, but it is an ongoing one.  And it’s almost unbelievable.

Bell is a small suburb in Los Angeles County.  It’s got a population of less than 40,000 people, many of them existing below the poverty line.

In mid-2010 the Los Angeles Times revealed that city leaders were pulling in astounding salaries.   For example, the unelected city administrator was making $800,000, the police chief was pulling down over $400,000, and all but one of the elected city council members were collecting almost $100,000.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Six figure annual salaries. Obscenely high salaries.

Just read this summary from the Los Angeles Times.

Additionally, city leadership was using police and code enforcement officers to impound cars and other property to shake down citizens for money. Ostensibly, the revenue was needed to pay the exorbitant salaries.  Here are examples from another story by the Los Angeles Times:

Those cited include a husband and wife passing out handbills, a taxi driver dropping off a customer, a woman selling mangoes and a homeless man picking up bottles. The fines varied widely, with amounts ranging from $25 to $1,000, plus a promise to pay an additional $1,000 for any future violation of the Bell municipal code. One person caught selling strawberries paid $75. Another paid $200, according to the records.

And that’s on top of hefty, and reportedly illegal, taxation of city residents.

How in the world could this happen?  Certainly we see political corruption in all levels of government.  But how could it get this bad for a locality?

Those answers, I believe, can be largely described via a single statement: lack of involvement by the community in local politics.

The aforementioned Los Angeles Times summary provides some information to support my viewpoint:

Voter participation became “abysmal,” said John Bramble, who was city administrator in 1990, a year when 669 votes — in a city of 34,000 — could win a City Council seat. Only five or six people showed up for neighborhood meetings.

Granted, this may be an extreme example of local politics gone horribly wrong.  Clearly there are a variety of factors that come into play.  After all, local politics is just as complex as anything on the state or national stage.

However, the story is a vivid lesson in the importance of the Ordinary Citizen getting involved in local politics to keep elected and unelected officials accountable.

More on that with an East Coast example in Part 2.

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