Last we checked, power flows from the people. We the people stand astride the machinery of government. We sit atop the pyramid of power. So accordingly we the people top-off the governance organization chart. But democracy in practice doesn’t always accord with the organization chart. Even in local government of only forty thousand people. Power is arrogated and bureaucracy exercises it’s prerogatives. Where does that leave the people?
Let’s take a look at the City of Beverly Hills organization chart [pdf]. It shows the people (‘citizens’) at the top of the power pyramid. From the people flows the power, of course, down through the representative City Council. The people signal the policy preferences and the Council, advised by (all-volunteer) commissions, as well as the City Attorney and Clerk, makes the laws. All work for the people.
And so does the City Manager. The City Manager reviews department head candidates, for example, and enjoys the authority to make the appointment. Though his organization chart box is subordinate to the Council and two rungs below that of the citizens, the City Manager enjoys quite a bit of control over the day-to-day management of the city. Though he takes direction from Council, the latter enjoys scant control over day-to-day management of the city and is, in fact, prohibited from taking a hands-on role in any aspect of our municipal governance. (This doesn’t make Beverly Hills unique, however; it’s the case in other general law cities in California that operate without their own standing city charter.)
The theory is that the people express their will to the Council, which crafts policy and makes decisions and then hands off to the City Manager the development of programs and responsibility for their implementation.
In practice, governing a city like Beverly Hills works a little differently. Our elected policymakers do indeed govern with the consent of the citizenry – that’s tested in every election of course – but their legitimacy, authority and even a mandate flows from the ‘voters’ rather than the ‘citizens.’ And there is an important difference: while the ‘citizen’ is the foundation of representative democracy, and occupies an idealized place atop the org chart, in reality it is the voter who effectively communicates preferences. And only the voter holds policymakers accountable at election time.
To nobody’s surprise, policymakers are responsive to voters. But less-organized precincts with lower turnout may not get that love. That’s where the gap between the theory of representative democracy and its practice emerges; and that gulf is amplified when voter turnout is low. In Beverly Hills our turnout is very low. Only 4863 registered voters cast a ballot in March’s city election. This in a city with 22,000 registered voters and another 5,000 voting-age residents who won’t (or can’t) even register.
In the event, only 22% of registered voters pulled a lever to elect 3 of 5 City Council members in March (as we illustrated in our deep dive into the 2013 election). Not that the contest wasn’t without interest. A big-ticket issue (Metro tunneling) had simmered for the previous year and a relatively acrimonious campaign season might have ginned up more voter attention. Yet our turnout trailed that of the 2012’s presidential election by a whopping fifty percentage points!
What happened to the other folks? In fact, our 2013 city election marked a low of sorts: more voters made it to the polls in each of the previous ten city elections (a twenty-year period) than they did in March. The downward arc of voter interest is especially clear over time:
If ‘citizens’ are to signal preferences and provide an accountability check on elected policymakers, how reassuring is it if our top vote-getter on Council nets fewer than 3,000 votes? What does it say about voter interest when few folks participate in the machinery of governance? According to a bi-weekly meetings digest provided to Council, stakeholders seldom do turn out to address city commissions. What could that say about a mandate to govern?
Democracy from Theory to Practice: Meet the City Manager
We detoured for Civics 101 because since early 2010 we have wondered why pro-bike improvements progress so slowly here in Beverly Hills. Sure, we’ve got a few block segments of improvements under the city’s Pilot program. And we hope to build on them in the future. But with Council on record as favoring pro-bike improvements, who’s foot is on the brake?
Meet the City Manager, Jeff Kolin. He’s been on the job (under contract to City Council) since 2009. He’s an avid cyclist, according to numerous city staffers, yet he’s not stepped into any policy discussion about safe streets or even promoting bicycle facilities in any meaningful way. The City Manager is in a position not only to support the Council’s bike-related priorities but to keep pace with other localities where road safety has become much more of a priority. So it’s unfortunate that we’re not seeing leadership from Mr. Kolin’s office. Our city has been left behind by other Westside cities in this regard.
How can the City Manager accelerate our advance into the twenty-first century multimodal mobility era? His responsibilities are crystal clear according to the municipal code:
The key here is department management. Consider how timelines for bike-related improvements have inexcusably stretched toward the horizon. For three+ years our ad hoc Bike Plan Update Committee has been talking about an update to our 1977-era Bicycle Master Plan. For two years we’ve waited for our Transportation Division in Public Works to develop a bicycle racks installation program to get bike racks on city streets. The city recently took delivery of 30 new racks but it looks like a couple of months before we’ll even see one deployed to a sidewalk in our business district, where we really need them.
Moreover, the City Manager enjoys some latitude to (literally) set the city’s agenda. But cycling issues don’t often make an appearance. In frustration, a horde of cyclists descended on Council Chambers to demand that the city take action in a heinous hit-and-run bike-involved collision. That should have been a hint to city hall to accelerate initiatives that will promote cycling and make it safer.
(Recently Mayor John Mirisch said that the City Manager was “usurping” his authority as Mayor in scheduling a meeting that excluded from the discussion the Mayor and Vice Mayor Bosse when one of the Mayor’s concerns was up for discussion. We did our own digging to find out that the rules are somewhat ambiguous.)
On that note, the City Manager is in a position to articulate a broader message to city staff about road safety. Mr. Kolin could perhaps draw on his own experience as a cyclist to seize opportunities to suggest to Council the steps that we need to take to make cycling a safe (and convenient) transportation option. When residents show up and say they’d like to bike to the business triangle for an ice cream but don’t feel safe, that should be a cue to the City Manager to identify good practices we see implemented elsewhere and make them programs here too.
The City Manager could recommend to Council that bike facilities be included in the city’s capital improvement (CIP) budget. Or suggest signage programs with some of the $2.5 million we’ll hand over to the Convention and Visitors Bureau to market the city. Heck even a slice of that quarter-million dollar marketing documentary budget would get us on the way to safe streets.
At this point in time we should be roaring into a new mobility era but so many of our policies are stuck in the auto era. We need to update our land use code to be sure that our commercial developments support bike commuters, and we need new language for our languished bicycle-related ordinances to reflect formal city policy statements about mobility. We’re not sure who’s foot has been on the brake, but it’s time we lifted it and accelerate into a sustainable mobility future.
We expect that one problem has been the entrenched leadership in the Public Works department. It never seemed supportive of bicycle transportation. Following on the recent retirement of the PW director, there is good news on the horizon. This week City Council will consider moving the transportation planning functions into our Community Development Department, which currently assumes land use planning responsibilities. Huddling transportation planners with engineers (in Public Works) was probably never the best strategy anyway, but it is a small city and compromises are made.
We were prepared to become very involved in selecting the PW chief replacement, who would be selected by the City Manager, but this is a better outcome should Council give the proper direction on Tuesday to consolidate land use and transportation functions. I could be a bold step forward (one contemplated but not implemented in City of Los Angeles) to jump-start an overdue conversation about the policy reforms we need in order to make Beverly Hills bikable.
The Org Chart Reconsidered
The city’s organization chart, we believe, doesn’t sufficiently reflect the City Manager’s power. Having a box at the center of the or chart may well suggest a technocratic function like making the trains run on time, but does it reflect the practice of governing in Beverly Hills? Is the City Manager the ‘hidden hand’ of general law city governance?
Why not look turn the org chart on its side to reflect the centrality of his role and to, well, level the implied hierarchy of power? How about resizing the boxes to suggest a more realistic portrayal of power in city hall?
Here the City Manager assumes a central role as the stakeholders and Council are literally off to the side – a mere input to the City Manager’s office. The commissions (with the notable exception of the Planning Commission) are proportionately downsized to reflect their real role in municipal government.
Perhaps most significant is the stakeholder class that goes unmentioned on the city’s official org chart. And it is the most important one. Our business community. This includes owners of both tangible (real estate) and intangible (business owner) property. If you thought real estate taxes make this city hall run, think again. It’s sales tax receipts. And the power-center of this ‘commerce class’ is the business triangle, of course.
You won’t find them on the city’s chart because the commerce class works behind and through city hall’s networks of political influence. So here we’ve added them without explicit lines of authority because their power is of course implicit.