Revolting Development: It Gets Worse for City Councils

As the alarmed messenger said to the king: "The peasants are revolting!"

They may not be revolting, but they certainly must seem more annoying than ever to various city councils.

In Tustin, 60 citizens stormed out of a recent council meeting, vowing to boycott city businesses over an annexation dispute.

In Laguna Niguel, citizens have targeted the entire five-member council for recall.

In Irvine, a slow-growth group called Irvine Tomorrow regularly does battle with the council.

In Seal Beach, citizens are in an ongoing war with the council over whether a proposed development should move forward. That follows a war with the previous council over the same project.

In Mission Viejo last year, citizens targeted three council members for defeat. Two of the three didn't run for reelection, and the third was soundly defeated.

In Huntington Beach, a citizens group that had butted heads with the City Council succeeded in winning voter approval for a ballot issue to limit development in parks and on beaches.

And the beat goes on. Serving on a city council is becoming a more dicey job than being chief of protocol in Iraq.

I don't want to ruin your Sunday morning with a treatise on municipal government, but if you were thinking of running for city council anytime in the upcoming decade, you might want to reconsider. And this suggestion to residents: If your council members seem a little jumpier than usual these days, bear with them.

Jim Colangelo, executive director of the Local Agency Formation Commission, agrees that the anxiety level is probably increasing on councils. He attributes it to a conglomeration of factors, including a more informed and involved public, increased mistrust of elected officials, and the increasing intensity over land-use decisions, which is directly related to the shrinking amount of open space.

"If you look back 10 years, there was lots of open space and the traffic problems were not as bad," Colangelo said. "Now, every development significantly impacts everyone else's standard of living. So the fights become more vicious and cut-throat. . . . "

Local governments are also suffering from the bane of every elected officeholder--an informed and educated public. "People are getting more information now than they used to," Colangelo said. "You can look to the Register or The Times and see that local coverage of Orange County is a lot better than it used to be."

Bob Dunek, now the city manager of Los Alamitos and a former local head of the League of California Cities, said the heightened public education results in people being more aware of the possible effects that governmental decisions have on their lives. And because society is indeed more complex and interconnected, he said, any given policy may well have a spillover effect on various groups.

Wait, it gets worse.

Don't forget that state and federal governments are handing down more responsibilities to cities than in days of yore. And, of course, they're doing it at a time of tighter revenues.

Bill Hodge, the current head of the county's division of the League of California Cities, says: "Before, there were more opportunities to react to constituents and solve problems. The choices have become a lot narrower, and the opportunity for flexibility is almost nonexistent. With all the different issues--air quality, transportation, waste management--as a council member, you used to be concerned about your town and your residents. Now you've not only got to be concerned about your town, but also the towns around you."

Yikes. I'm convinced. There's no doubt in my mind that I'm not up to the task. So, after much thought, let me say that I will not seek nor will I accept a draft to serve on any city council in Orange County. I do, however, reserve the right to criticize them any time I feel like it.

Ain't democracy wonderful?

And I've saved the best news for last: It's probably only going to get more sticky in the future for local councils.

Mark Baldassare, a professor of social ecology at UCI and frequent pollster of Orange County residents, says that as more new cities and fledgling municipal governments form, "we're going to see a lot more of these skirmishes in the future, as people start to become familiar with the process of give-and-take in City Hall.

"That's what's going to be interesting about our future. People are going to be looking less to Santa Ana and the county seat and are going to be putting city officials under closer scrutiny. More and more, the state and federal government is turning over powers to local government, so people will be looking to local leaders to do a bigger job and a better job at what they do."

And so, to city council members throughout the county, let me just say in as heartfelt manner as possible:

Have a nice decade.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°