They can be found wherever public officials meet, buzzing around the heads of state and the body politic. No school board, planning commission or city council is immune to their sting.
They become so well-known at meetings that they sometimes grow to be perversely endearing to public officials--sort of like in-laws who always seem to show up at dinner time. For example, a Laguna Beach citizen who has honored the City Council with 241 consecutive appearances began his remarks at a recent meeting by complimenting the mayor on the condition of his mustache.
One longtime council-watcher in Anaheim was so regular in his attendance that a council member suggested attaching a bronze nameplate to the seat that the man always occupied.
A former Anaheim mayor remembers one elderly gentleman who used to sit in the front row in council chambers and fire spitballs at council members.
Then there was the woman in Newport Beach who battled the oil companies so often in public debate at council meetings that one company's lobbyist began picking her up on his way to the meetings.
In polite circles, they are known as "council-watchers" or "watchdogs." Behind closed doors of council chambers, they're probably more often referred to as "those !!$%$%!!" Whatever they're called, they are private citizens who share a belief that their efforts are bettering the state of participatory government.
For the past 10 years, Shirley Grindle has monitored a political campaign ordinance passed by the County Board of Supervisors. "They keep on their toes because they know I'm watching them," she says.
It is not that the board asked Grindle for her help, mind you. It's just that as a driving force behind the TINCUP (Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics) group that spawned the ordinance, Grindle says she wants to make sure that it is properly carried out. "I do it because I don't want to see all the efforts go to waste. If not monitored by someone like me, it wouldn't mean anything. There are not enough police or D.A.s to do what I do."
And it is not as though the San Clemente City Council asked Karoline Koester to come down to City Hall every week and go over their books. But she has done just that for the past 2 years, since being defeated for reelection to the council. She typically goes in on Friday and spends a couple of hours reviewing the city's expenditures.
"It's not my intention to annoy them," Koester said. "It's my intention to get the facts if I find reason or proof that there's something amiss that can be corrected. If that annoys people, perhaps they're not doing their work right."
Koester, 62, who served as a council member from 1979 to 1986, said that some officials probably resent her continued involvement. "Since I know the system like I do, they perhaps frown on my being as involved as I am. I've had that feeling from certain people--'You had your day in court, so it's best that you just go back and be a citizen.' Some people just think the public is there to pay their taxes, and the staff and city manager do the job."
Both Grindle and Koester disavow the "gadfly" designation, believing that it imputes a measure of frivolousness to their actions.
Margaret Leach of Santa Ana doesn't like that label, either. "Did someone call me a gadfly?" she wanted to know. She said she began attending council meetings in 1962 and now spends 2 or 3 hours a day studying city issues.
"Why wouldn't people be interested in the type of government they live under?" Leach wondered. "If someone is interested in government, why label them a gadfly or troublemaker or anything else?
"If people are so uninterested in their government, then at one time or another they're going to wonder why they are slaves or have fallen under a dictatorship, so if they pay attention to what's going on in government, then they will understand that maybe they are falling under a dictatorship. But if football and basketball games and all the gladiator sports are of more interest to them, then this government will fall."
It was suggested to her that some people find public meetings boring. "Some people like to go out and play golf, some like to keep their minds alert. Some people read novels. To me, reading about government is more interesting."
The "gadfly" designation doesn't bother Alan Adams of Laguna Beach, who in early April claimed a world record of 241 consecutive appearances by a citizen at a city council meeting. "The record continues to be broken again and again--by me," Adams said.
"I think I'm what they might call an itch they can't scratch," Adams said.
A Laguna Beach city official phrased it somewhat differently. "Alan is a pain in the butt," the official said.
Citizens monitoring their elected officials are part of a rich tradition, but they often get little respect, said Judith Rosener, an assistant dean of the Graduate School of Management at UC Irvine who has taught classes on understanding the system. "That's one of the problems with society," Rosener said. "We were a democratic republic based on the supposition that the public had a very vital role, but what's done is that anybody who takes an interest in government for whatever reason becomes 'a problem.' "
That kind of label might discourage citizens from participating, Rosener suggested. There is sometimes little functional difference between the private citizen arguing a point and a highly paid lobbyist, she added.
But while Rosener and some others find the term "gadfly" offensive, it is also true that in addition to occasionally contributing to public policy, the great gadflies leave the best legacies.
W. J. (Bill) Thom, a former Anaheim mayor and councilman, chuckled when asked whether he had any gadfly stories. "I remember one very succinctly," he said. "I don't know if she's still alive or not. She was quite picturesque and colorful. She referred to herself as the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter of a seventh daughter born with a veil over her face. She used to sit in the back of the council chamber.
"She wore a great, broad-brimmed hat, smelled like an old YMCA locker and she had this very hoarse whisper, a stagey-type of whisper, and when something came up, she'd have a comment like, 'Up your (expletive)' or '(Expletive) you.' I'd finally have to say: 'You're going to have to tone it down or I'll have to ask you to leave.' "
But Thom's favorite was the Salty Spitballer. "He was about 73, 74 years old," Thom said. "He'd sit in the front row and flip spit wads at me." So, as Thom was attempting to concentrate on city business, he found himself warily watching the man in the front row carefully construct his missile.
Thom recalls: "He had a rubber band that he'd hold between his first finger and his thumb, then he had a piece of paper, and he'd roll or fold it until it was an inch or so long, then double it over and start biting it in his teeth to get a good crease. Then he'd fold over the rubber band and make a slingshot out of it. That SOB, he was pretty accurate. If I wasn't wearing glasses, I'd have gotten my eye knocked out a couple times. He got me in the hand once, but when he got me in the nose, I really got mad. I said, 'Look, you SOB, if you do that again, I'll kick your ass all the way down the stairs.' "
That was the last time he ever saw the man, Thom said.
Thom, who served in Anaheim from 1970 to 1978, said that, in general, he enjoyed the inveterate council-watchers. "They never annoyed me, but maybe it's because I have a perverse type of personality. I think they offer another type of sounding board, if you will.
"Most concerned residents who come in over zoning ordinances or variances they object to are in once and that's it. The watcher, the groupie, the gadfly--will and does offer all kinds of opinions, but never on those zoning things. They're not interested in those things. They're more interested in the administrative mechanics of the city," he declared.
Another characteristic of gadflies is that they never go away. "We've had a lot of them," said Carolyn Morris, city clerk in Garden Grove. "It seems like one gets replaced by another. It seems that just about the time one stops coming, another one (starts). They rarely get up and say anything; they're just interested in coming. It's like it's their weekly social event."
Council members generally are not disdainful toward them, Morris said. "Depending on how people approach it, I think there's a general feeling that the council-watcher keeps you on your toes and keeps you from becoming complacent. They normally aren't vicious people. They just want to see the best done for the city."
Supervisor Don R. Roth, a former Anaheim councilman, said he occasionally watches an Anaheim council meeting on cable TV and still sees a man there who attended meetings years ago.
"I think there are various reasons why people attend," Roth said. "There are some people who really dream about sitting up there and being a councilperson. There are other people who are retired and it keeps their minds sharp."
The city manager of another Orange County community, who requested anonymity, had another theory on why some people attend so regularly. "I would think ego is probably involved. And a sense of recognition. Let's face it, you get an opportunity to voice yourself, and in our city, we don't just listen and yawn and say, 'Good, see you next time.' The council usually gives them an ear. And sometimes it directs the staff to look into (the issue the citizen brought up). So there is a power there that comes without being elected."
Shirley Grindle says the function of the council-watcher is much more fundamental than that.
"Democracy won't work if there aren't citizen watchdogs," Grindle said. "It absolutely won't work. We need a lot more people who would take an interest to watch our elected officials. If left alone, elected officials start to live in a world of their own with a whole set of rules different from everybody else's."