Not long ago, a homeless man wandered into a restaurant on the ocean promenade in the city of Ventura, California, and stabbed to death a young man who was eating dinner while holding his young daughter in his lap.
The incident itself was ugly enough, but the subsequent debate proved just as bad. Many Ventura residents expressed disgust with the city’s inability to deal with people they regarded as vagrants, while many others expressed disgust that their friends and neighbors could dehumanize homeless people as part of the debate.
In the middle of this nasty fight sat seven people doing their best to make Ventura a better place to live: the members of the Ventura City Council. Sitting on the dais in the council chambers in the city’s historic 105-year-old city hall was not a comfortable place to be. Governing at the local level in California is always fraught with peril because people often have contradictory moral visions about what their city government should do—a fact that is obvious in most city council chambers every week. “We’re mad as hell. We’re not going to take anymore,” one resident told the councilmembers in a room packed full of angry folks.
The Ventura homelessness debate may yet work out—there’s a growing consensus to move forward with a new shelter—but the sense of being under fire will continue for local elected officials. It is inescapable: You’re elected by the small minority of residents who bother to vote in local elections. You devote yourself to a 24/7 job that pays a few thousand dollars a year. You try to do the right thing. But whatever you do, lots of your longtime friends and neighbors will be angry with you—and will express that anger to you in deeply personal terms in the supermarket, at parks and schools and churches, and even in parking lots.
I used to be a member of the Ventura City Council, and four of my former colleagues still serve there. They had to weather the recent controversy over the homeless. In my view, there’s no question that serving as a local elected official in California has gotten a lot harder over the past decade or two.
Just like our national conversation, our local debates have gotten harsher and uglier. Increasingly, we have seen deep divisions not only over local issues but also over national issues that manifest themselves locally, such as the recent debate about providing sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.
And, mirroring what’s happening at the national level, the ability to get things done locally has gotten much more difficult. Local politics is getting more ideological and the divisions in every city are getting starker. I called my recent book—an account of my time on the Ventura City Council—Talk City because sometimes it seemed to me like that’s all we ever did. And over time I felt we drifted away from productive talk that moved us toward action and instead spent more time talking past each other without taking any action.
Partly, this inability to get things done is the result of the growing disconnect between the expectations of our voters and their willingness to pay for those expectations. In California, that is a disconnect that goes back 40 years to the passage of Proposition 13.
On the one hand, people expect our city to do everything. Ventura is an old-fashioned “full service” city, which must provide police, fire, parks, water, sewer and more. Very often the city is the only local institution with the scale and revenue to initiate any large-scale undertaking.
On the other hand, most people don’t vote in local elections; turnout in off-year local elections typically runs between 25 percent and 35 percent. The voters are deeply skeptical of the city government’s competence; and during my terms they regularly voted down tax increases and tied the city’s hands on policy decisions via other ballot initiatives.
Sometimes we couldn’t even agree on what to call our city. The official name is “San Buenaventura,” named for our mission, which was in turn named for St. Bonaventure, the 13th-century Catholic saint. (St. Bonaventure was a Franciscan, as was St. Junipero Serra, father of the California mission system.) That name had been shortened to “Ventura” in the 19th century, supposedly because the full name was too long to fit on the railroad schedules. Yet we never quite decided what to call ourselves—even our wayfinding signs said Ventura in some locations and San Buenaventura in others. In the middle of a heated debate on this topic one night, one of our longtime city councilmembers said, “We should use San Buenaventura on all of our signs so everybody knows they’re in Ventura.”
Luck of the draw made me mayor of Ventura during the depths of the last recession. I was the guy who closed a library and a fire station. We couldn’t meet expectations, and that, frankly, is when local politics got uglier than it had been before.
During the recession, I had conversations with constituents almost every day who told me that we shouldn’t cut their library service/fire station/park/senior citizen program. When I would ask them what we should cut instead, their typical reaction was: “I don’t know. That’s your job.”
In my experience, I am sorry to say, I now see the beginnings of the coarse, cynical, and occasionally cruel way that even ordinary people approach politics today.
One early manifestation of this was the Tea Party, which emerged in 2009 just when I began my stint as mayor. As the city contemplated a ban on single-use plastic bags, I was inundated by emails from members of the then-new Tea Party—some longtime friends, some out-of-towners I did not know—claiming that we were going to strip our residents of a precious freedom. A disagreement on policy is one thing, but one correspondent declared—in the subject line of his email—“Give me plastic bags or give me death!”
Not long afterward, the Tea Party and some other similarly minded folks came out in force to oppose our decision to install paid parking in some parts of downtown Ventura. I viewed this move as a market-oriented solution to a serious problem: Too many people parked on Main Street, while not enough people parked in the parking lots a half-block away. But the Tea Party folks viewed it as an unconstitutional exercise in double taxation. John and Ken—conservative shock-jock radio hosts in Southern California—spent an hour excoriating “the stupid city of Ventura and their dumbass mayor Bill Fulton.”
The budget situation is better now and my former colleagues have been able to do some good things as a result. But the tinge of meanness has remained, just as it has at the national level. John and Ken were back in Ventura broadcasting from the Promenade after the recent homeless/murder incident.
Those are the kinds of experiences that make you wonder why anybody would run for office. Indeed, whenever anybody asks me whether I think they should run for their local city council, the first thing I always ask is, “Are you crazy enough to do it?”
It’s not surprising under these circumstances that not many good people want to run for office in California these days—and I’m not sure there are many systemic changes that could improve the situation. A recent state law that will switch many local elections from odd to even years will at least increase turnout—which may help people feel more invested in their elected officials. Better pay might help, so that people don’t have to retire or go bankrupt to serve. But maybe the most important thing is simply to help people see political and civic life in their town as a shared effort that includes not just the elected officials but everybody else as well.
As mayor I used to attend a different church service every Sunday, and at one social hour after a service I was approached by a man in his 30s wearing all black with several tattoos. He was accompanied by his wife and daughter, both of whom were dressed in all black with heavy dark makeup.
“Mayor Fulton,” he said, “I just wanted to say we love what you’re doing. We are so excited about where Ventura is going.”
I thanked him in a perfunctory way, and he added: “We were wondering—how can the Goth community get more involved?”
I’m not sure we ever got the Goth community deeply involved in Ventura’s political life. But that’s where the hope lies: When ordinary people from various backgrounds are inspired to step out of their own world and into the wider world of civic involvement.