By Stephen Kessler
Trigger warning: The word “library” appears twice in the following paragraphs.
Until the 2000s, for most of my time in greater Santa Cruz I had resided outside the city limits: Aptos, Ben Lomond, Felton, Bonny Doon, and about 17 years in the Soquel Valley. While editing and publishing The Sun in the late 1980s I had a news editor who covered city politics, and while I attended a few council meetings I never looked very deeply into that body’s machinations. It was only on returning to town after some years away and resettling on the Westside that I began to pay closer attention. It was the library bond measure in 2016 and its subsequent permutations that really aroused my journalistic curiosity.
Because that was an issue I took personally, and as a dues-paying member of Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries (until purged, Soviet-style, for my published opinions at odds with the those of the then-executive director), I started following much more closely the workings of city government, attending council meetings, speaking with officials and unofficials, elected and otherwise, reading documents and writing about what I was learning. If you are a regular reader of this page, you know that my essays have rubbed some local big shots the wrong way.
As someone with some experience running organizations (mostly as an editor or publisher, though I’ve also served on my condo board, which was truly a political education), I understand the urge to serve and to put one’s skills to work to advance a vision — of a publication or a building or a community — so I have a certain respect for people who run for office and win and have to sit through countless meetings, read tons of studies, bids, reports, budgets and spreadsheets, and listen patiently and respectfully to constituents, no matter how hostile or behaviorally challenged.
It’s the kind of work not everyone is cut out for — certainly not me.
So here’s two cheers for anyone willing to serve on a committee or a board or a commission or a council, with the understanding that most of them are in it with the sincere intent to make a positive contribution. If they find that they have a knack for it, they may wish to advance to the next level of leadership — in the case of the city council, perhaps to run for supervisor, or to serve the maximum two four-year terms, take a two-year break, and run again for another two four-year stretch. In our city manager form of government, it has also afforded the chance to serve as mayor, in some cases multiple times.
Such seasoned political veterans, the longer they serve, learn more and better how the city works both politically and policywise, get to know staff and how they keep things running, and develop a sense, as in any profession, of confidence and, one hopes, competence. It might even be enough, after a while, to give them the notion that they know better than anyone else what’s good for the community, whether the community knows it or not. Such expertise can go to one’s head.
If you’ve been in office long enough, or been mayor enough times, you’ve cultivated relations with lots of people and organizations, and it’s easy to believe, as you amass more and more leverage, influence and power, that you can do no wrong because you really do mean well — you just may not be fully aware of how abusively or unethically you wield your clout.
In the good old days when local newspapers could afford investigative reporters, the press served as a reality check on politicians’ power. In recent decades it’s all a local paper can do to report on meetings and official pronouncements, giving public officials the comforting impression that nobody’s keeping an eye on how they operate. Which leaves it up to mere commentators to look more closely at what they’re doing, and to make them uncomfortable.
Stephen Kessler’s column appears on Saturdays.