The usual mechanism for holding officials accountable in a representative democracy is the ballot: if we don’t like how we’re served by our representatives, we can simply “vote the bums out.” But what happens when elections come around and nobody steps up to challenge incumbents? Beverly Hills should be holding a municipal election this March for two Council seats, but the only two candidates to step forward are incumbents. So we simply cancelled the election. Here the practice of governing falls short of theories about governance, and political accountability for unsafe streets takes a holiday.
The ballot box is a powerful lever for affecting the priorities of elected officials. Here in Beverly Hills, our opportunity comes every odd year. Terms for our five-member City Council are staggered; two seats come open in March election and three in 2017. Because office of the Mayor is a ceremonial office, each council elections is our key opportunity to shape the direction we want the city to take. In large part that’s because the ballot we cast affects how the city is managed.
In Beverly Hills, City Council appoints a city manager, the technocrat who manages departments, conducts and supervises hiring, and implements programs among other responsibilities. According to the organization chart, the city manager takes direction from councilmembers and manages the staff. But one thing left off the chart is the need to manage staff inertia – the preference not to act. That’s often chalked up to risk aversion, which is a characteristic of local governments.
Also left off the city’s organization chart is the city manager who doesn’t take direction well. Here in Beverly Hills, we’ve seen friction emerge between City Council and City Manager Jeff Kolin over the management of the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction process, as well as the enduring vacancies on the Beverly Hills Police Department. Mr. Kolin announced his retirement come January.
And not a moment too soon. Beverly Hills City Hall is defined by inertia; it’s where good ideas die on the vine for want of City Manager leadership or staff concern. In our five years advocating on behalf of safe streets and multimodal mobility, we’ve seen remarkably little action on that agenda from our officials beyond the empty rhetoric of plans and press releases. Little of substance reflects the city’s stated policy objectives in the Sustainable City Plan and the General Plan’s circulation element such as reducing congestion, slowing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, and yes, encouraging cycling. Even rhetoric went missing: the city manager is rumored to be a cyclist himself but seems remarkably reticent when it comes to speaking up for safer streets. In fact, we can’t ever recall him uttering a word about making Beverly Hills bike-friendly.
Come 2015, however, we expected the opportunity to nudge our city in the right direction mobility-wise: we were to go to the polls to choose two councilmembers and to work with a new city manager. If only it were so! When no challenger stepped forward to contest a Council seat, our election was canceled (as many have been across Los Angeles County) as no challenger filed the required number of signatures necessary to run.
Because Councilmembers Lili Bosse and Dr. Julian Gold were simply appointed to four-year terms by City Council, missed an opportunity to hold City Hall accountable. And we missed an opportunity to reflect on recent changes in how our city operates. City Council strengthened the hand of insiders, for example, by reducing the size of city commissions to narrow the gate for new, incoming ‘team players.’ City Council raised the limits on contributions, too, in our small city too vulnerable to influence-buying.
Moreover, City Hall has ‘liberalized’ planning regulations; weakened our preservation standards; and reassigned some zoning decisions to an administrative process behind closed doors from quasi-judicial hearings as in the past.
If many of us didn’t pay attention to these policies as they percolated though the governing process, with a canceled election we don’t have any means of giving our collective thumbs-up or thumbs-down at the polls. Ballot box accountability is particularly important because few residents pay attention to what our commissions are doing, according to our quick look at commission meetings:
Commission business in Beverly Hills don’t pull in the stakeholders.
Then again, few pay attention to the polls. The city’s turnout is remarkably anemic. Just 22% of those registered actually voted in the municipal election of 2013, marking a long-term overall slide in voter interest:
In the 2013 election, for example turnout was fewer than 5,000 votes in a city of 38,000 residents (22%). One of the three contested city council seats that election was secured with just 2,540 votes (merely 7 more than the runner-up).
In fact, it takes fewer than three thousand votes to secure a City Council seat in our city of 38,000 residents, which means opportunity for those who are involved, and organized, like north-side homeowners, to gain disproportionate influence and use a heavy hand on the tiller of the ship of state.
For those of us who chafe at the city’s inaction on street safety, and who feel frustrated that our calls to make Beverly Hills bike-friendly falls on officials’ deaf ears, we can only lament the missed opportunity at the polls to hold City Council accountable. Instead of a campaign season that might have tested candidates’ commitment to multimodal mobility – as our plans urge, by the way – we’ll instead wait for our next chance in 2017 to put our own hands on the tiller.
*And maybe it was overdue, as it is surprising to learn how little backing is necessary in order to gain a toehold in local government. In 2013, the three winning candidates spent an average of less than $20 per vote to run a campaign. (Councilmember Willie Brien was the big spender: he broke the bank at $25 spent per voter.) Clearly it doesn’t take very much to keep the wheels of governance turning in Beverly Hills, which is good news to the lobbyists and ‘influencers’ who ply City Hall corridors.