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A Letter From City Manager Rick Cole
November 19, 2018
by Rick Cole
This article originally appeared in the November-December edition of Seascape.
Not since the days of Vietnam and Watergate has there been such deep and widespread mistrust of government – at all levels. I recall my first day on the job in Santa Monica three years ago. I wanted to spend time out in the field at our libraries, fire stations, the public works yards and the Big Blue Bus headquarters. In the courtyard of our main library downtown, I came upon four women playing bridge. I introduced myself as the new City Manager. They told me they loved our libraries and shared how much they enjoyed them. I asked about our Police Department. They had nothing but good things to say. Same for our Fire Department. When I asked about parks, one of them said we should have more, but the ones we have were great. I responded that it sounded like they were pretty happy with their city government.
"City government?" "Happy?" "Oh, no!" they all responded in chorus. They told me the government was terrible. Incompetent! Crooked! In their minds, city government was to blame for traffic, crime and practically everything wrong with society today.
To them, "the government" was not the entity that provided the library, police, fire and parks that they appreciated. No, government was an alien presence they read about in the media – or on social media. And that’s a growing attitude across our country. The people are "us." The government is "them."
There are 20 million people who work in state and local government in America. Some of them are stupid. Some of them are lazy. Some of them are incompetent. Some of them are corrupt. But watching Fox News or following some threads on Facebook and Twitter, you’d think that nearly all of us were stupid, lazy, incompetent and corrupt.
28% of residents agree or strongly agree they can influence decisions affecting Santa Monica.Source: The Wellbeing Index
Of course that’s not true. Here and elsewhere, the vast majority of librarians, police officers, firefighters, civil engineers, bus drivers and planners are skilled, hardworking professionals with a passion for public service. So are the supervisors, chiefs and managers who lead them. They work hard and care deeply for our community. Yet more and more Americans are not just unhappy with the shortcomings of government — they are mistrustful, resentful and angry. So why the hostility?
There is no easy answer. Those of us who serve in government certainly aren’t perfect. Neither is the City of Santa Monica. We make mistakes, sometimes big ones. Yet there is a fundamental difference between recognizing that democracy is messy and government is flawed — and believing that democracy is a fraud – and government is evil.
Can we address this national crisis of trust in government right here in our own community?
In many ways, we already do. Hundreds of citizens are active in all kinds of constructive ways. They serve on the City Council and City Commissions and volunteer in myriad ways from the Friends of the Library to the Community Emergency Response Teams. They actively participate in community events, civic organizations and workshops. They volunteer in our schools, charities and faith communities to tackle some of our most difficult community challenges. In fact, if you are reading this issue of the Seascape, you are taking the time to be informed and active about your community.
Yet too many locals feel deeply estranged from their government – or simply detached. That’s why we strive to do better. To be accessible, visible, active, transparent and accountable in seeking out members of our community – and not simply reacting to the loudest voices. Two minutes speaking at City Council meetings can’t foster the kind of informed and thoughtful dialogue we need to tackle community challenges like homelessness, the rising cost of living and crime.
To foster that kind of interchange, last year we held a series of community conversations about public safety that weren’t structured formal meetings – but opportunities for free-flowing dialogue.
We can’t make everyone happy all the time – as President Kennedy eloquently explained, to govern is to choose. Government today involves tough choices about how and where to spend time and money – and when it comes to politics, we live in polarized times. Yet even if people are inevitably going to be disappointed when they don’t always get their way, those of us in government can still strive to look for common ground.
There’s also much you can do. Nowadays it is more popular to talk about the rights of individuals than their responsibilities. Yet no democracy can last long without the values of tolerance, compromise, and a commitment to the common good. The Greeks, who invented both the word and the practice, used to swear an oath on reaching the age of citizenship to "leave our city better – and more beautiful – than we found it." Those ideals may be ancient, but they are still sorely needed.
Democracy, as Churchill famously said, is the worst form of government – except all the others. It requires citizens to take an active and informed role in making government work. Santa Monica is small enough for even a single individual to make a difference. If you are not satisfied with how well our government and democracy is working now, remember what Al Smith said a hundred years ago, "all the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy." Get involved – and help leave our city greater and more beautiful than we found it.
To learn more about how you can be more informed or contribute, visit weare.santamonica.gov.