Over the years, local government s within Stanislaus County have formed countless committees. A committee or a study can be a great smokescreen to hide decision making in government.
What a committee accomplishes will depend on what politicians want the outcome to be. Sometimes when Valley politicians want to avoid public input, they form a committee. The committee report may be predetermined when committee members are told what the final report should say. Results may be predicted by looking at who the appointees of a committee are. Sometimes, the final committee report will not be easy to predict. What is always true is that the committee’s results will have a logical explanation, regardless of how illogical the conclusion or the process used to reach the conclusion.
The New Stanislaus County Water Committee
Earlier this year, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors appointed a 21 member committee to develop plans to manage water during and after the current drought. Before the committee was set up, the Supervisors were ready to implement emergency measures that would head off more devastating impacts should the drought worsen.
Sensing that the Board proposals might hurt their bottom line, some large water users lobbied the Supervisors to postpone emergency measures and refer all proposals to committee. The stated intention was to enable the formulation of a fair and effective plan of action. The hidden agenda was to stop any change to the status quo. The best way to stop change is to say “let’s study it.”
The 21 members of the committee have a wide variety of interests. Most seek to maintain the status quo or to improve the position of the interests they represent. If the Supervisors had wanted to deal with water shortages, the committee would have been comprised entirely of hydrologists and other experts. Instead, the committee is dominated by various interests and power brokers in the County who can serve as naysayers and direct discussion away from constructive solutions.
Because the committee is comprised of many brilliant minds, constructive solutions are always possible. But if the committee ends up failing to do its job, no one should be surprised.
Eric Caine has written an article about the Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee that demonstrates a lack of progress in dealing with groundwater and the drought. If the committee were serious about its task, the Board of Supervisors would already have at least one proposal to consider for legislative action. How long should the committee need to produce a plan of value?
“We Can Do Whatever We Want With Wood Colony”
In the case of the proposal for the annexation of Wood Colony, the Modesto City Council took a variation of the committee strategy by sending Wood Colony off for “study” in a “General Plan Overhaul.” The story line is that anything that gets overhauled will be better. The politicians are hoping that no one notices when the proposal comes out of “study.”
Sending the proposal for study was intended to eliminate protest from opponents of annexation. When “the overhaul” comes back to the Council, the Council hopes no one will notice that it is on the agenda. And if someone does notice, it will be too late to organize an effort to stop it. The citizens of Wood Colony had better watch every agenda and be prepared.
Some Historic Modesto Committees
In the 1990’s, a committee of the City Council created an infrastructure rate schedule that enabled residential developers to receive massive subsidies for their projects at taxpayers’ expense. The City Council at the time deliberately enabled developers in Village One to reap over $30 million in subsidies.
Another committee of the 1990’s helped to revise Modesto’s general plan to maximize its land area. Several members of the group “GOAL: Growth, Orderly, Affordable, and Livable” had applied to serve on the committee and were excluded because of their steadfast opposition to land grabs. The reasons given for the exclusion included “we never received your application,” “your application arrived late,” and “others were better qualified to serve.” During that era, committees were used to hide what was going on; local newspaper reporters were not able to attend every committee meeting and the meetings were never televised.
Historic Stanislaus County Committees
Stanislaus County has had various committees over the years. For example, committees have promoted a sales tax increase for the building of more roads. Public money has been used to help pay for polls later used in the campaign for a sales tax increase, which failed on two separate occasions. Presumably, a new committee will be set up to promote a 2016 ballot proposal.
The Stanislaus Council of Governments has a Citizens Advisory Committee. Over the years, the committee has reviewed countless transportation projects, with very few recommendations coming out of the committee other than to support staff recommendations. News media never cover the Citizens’ Committee, so little is known about such discussions as the 132 Freeway project.
When Carmen Sabatino was Mayor of Modesto, a committee was established to discuss urban growth throughout the county. Representatives from each city in the county met on a monthly basis. Chairman Tom Van Groningen was appointed as the facilitator.
When the committee eventually disbanded, no county wide agreements had been reached despite the advancement of a number of proposals. Each proposal was voted down for lack of ability to reach consensus. The committee was destined for failure because each city in the county wanted to remain its own fiefdom rather than cooperate to make a better future for the entire county. No public input was made at any of these meetings.
Lack Of Transparency
Citizens have often complained that when they have spoken at Modesto City Council meetings that the council members appeared to have already made up their minds. Thank the committee system for this way of doing business.
During the critical formative period when elected officials decide how they will vote, the decisions are often made at the committee level with minimal public input. The opportunity to make input exists, but the vast majority of citizens are unaware of where, when, and how to participate in their local government.
This method of operation is the primary reason local government appears to lack transparency. Politicians prefer to operate out of public view, where they can push their agendas without risk of criticism. When the news media can’t see, they can’t criticize. When the public can’t see, politicians can give away taxpayer money to their friends and lobbyists. Government will never become transparent as long as committees continue to do business with little public oversight.