As I stated last time, bare facts come in many shapes and sizes. So do governments.
Today we’ll uncover some basic facts about how government begets government. Don’t be surprised at how many partners are needed for the act. Your role is just to follow the bouncing ball.
The first bounce is on the Declaration of Independence – the pugnacious pronouncement signed by 56 residents of Britain’s 13 American colonies, dated July 4, 1776, proclaiming: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men…”
Now bounce ahead to 1789, landing on a polished gem called the preamble of the United States Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
One more bounce brings us to President Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, which starts like this: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…” And it concludes with this: “government of the people, by the people, for the people…”
Obviously, the luminaries of American history who created these documents shared a similar viewpoint about the rightful purpose of government: to ensure just and equitable treatment for all generations; keep peace among fellow citizens; raise the people’s standard of living; oversee mutual and collective safety; and facilitate everyone’s ability to get on with his and her own life.
To them it was a self-evident truth that government served as a dynamic force for human progress (but yes, it would take a bloody war to abolish slavery and a major struggle to enfranchise women).
Nowhere did they suggest that families, churches, nonprofits, charities, rugged individuals, corporate business, or general goodwill could or should substitute for the role of government in the lives of the people. Or that government should be starved to death… shrunk down to the size of a dried lima bean.
But like all human creations, governments require continual oversight and improvements. Far from being sacred or immutable, our Constitution has been modified by 27 amendments, undoubtably with more to come.
One of them (the 10th Amendment) concerns the limits of top-down control: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Meaning that each state has the right to create its own constitution.
Which brings us back to the bouncing ball. Watch it as it lands on the California Constitution, first adopted in 1848 (remember the gold rush?) and overhauled in 1879. Since then it has been transformed by over 500 amendments from a short and succinct document to the world’s third longest constitution.
If you dig deep enough you’ll find a provision in the California Constitution (Article 11) that deals with the formation of California cities.
(FYI: the purpose of grassroots entities called cities is to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their local hometown residents. Cities can be eithergeneral law cities controlled by state law or charter cities answerable to most of state law but primarily controlled by a local constitution/city charter. In contrast, counties are local entities that generally function as pass-throughs for state mandates in a more top-down enterprise.)
This bouncing ball drops down on the city of San Diego, which – when a small village in 1850 (pop. 650) – was incorporated as a city. By 1931, San Diegans (pop. 150,000) created their own constitution/charter and voted to become a charter city. It’s been many times amended and is still in use today.
What’s in the San Diego City Charter? Nothing as elegant as the historical documents cited above.
The bare fact is that our Charter is a pedestrian compilation of articles and sections laying out our election process; city government system; formation of council districts; power and responsibility of elected officials; rules for city finance, budget, and accounting systems; civil service system; employees’ retirement system; Board of Education powers, duties, election, and districts; and a miscellaneous hodgepodge of provisions about the sale of public land, giving or receiving payment for political favors, disclosure of business interests, amending the Charter, etc.
What’s not in our City Charter? Not a hint to the public or to city officials of the motivation, objectives, or ideals that explain why we exist as a charter city.
Just bounce over to the following core statements from San Francisco and Seattle and you’ll see for yourselves how stunted San Diego’s image and goals seem to be:
* “In order to obtain the full benefit of home rule granted by the Constitution of the State of California; to improve the quality of urban life; to encourage the participation of all persons and all sectors in the affairs of the City and County; to enable municipal government to meet the needs of the people effectively and efficiently; to provide for accountability and ethics in public service; to foster social harmony and cohesion; and to assure equality of opportunity for every resident: We, the people of the City and County of San Francisco, ordain and establish this Charter as the fundamental law of the City and County. “
* “Under authority conferred by the Constitution of the State of Washington, the People of the City of Seattle enact this Charter as the Law of the City for the purpose of protecting and enhancing the health, safety, environment, and general welfare of the people; to enable municipal government to provide services and meet the needs of the people efficiently; to allow fair and equitable participation of all persons in the affairs of the City; to provide for transparency, accountability, and ethics in governance and civil service; to foster fiscal responsibility; to promote prosperity and to meet the broad needs for a healthy, growing City.”
(But heed this warning! Tinkering with our City Charter can be very dangerous to the public health and welfare unless the job is turned over to an independent, non-political, certifiably trustworthy Charter Commission. It’s not a job for political hacks and toadies. More about that at a later date.)
Which brings us the final bouncing ball: The term government automatically signifies power and control. In cities like San Diego it often determines who gets rich, who gets richer, and who gets to pick up the crumbs.
Next time we’re together we’ll look at certain Charter changes enacted during the past decade – particularly the switch to a strong mayor form of government – and see what these changes look like when it all hangs out.