Voices of Elk Grove - Resident Compares City to Corrupt Southeastern Los Angeles County Municipalities; Lessons From Blago?

May 13, 2017 |  

Anyone with even a minor degree of familiarity with political corruption cases in the state will undoubtedly conjure an image in their mind when the city of Bell, California is mentioned in a conversation.

Bell, the southeastern Los Angeles County municipality can hardly be spoken in a sentence without the word corruption being included. Even though the scandals that enveloped the small suburban city landed several city council members and managers in prison, the Sacramento Bee revisited Bell and several other nearby communities in a feature story last weekend.

In the story, conditions were described that led to one of the most notorious small-town scandals with big city money perhaps in California history. Among other things, mix a cozy relationship between elected officials and the professional managers who they were elected to oversee with residents who were regularly intimidated for speaking up, and you have some of the ingredients that engulfed Bell and other nearby cities.

Speaking to this at the Elk Grove City Council meeting on Wednesday, May 10 was smart growth advocate and taxpayer watchdog, Elk Grove resident Lynn Wheat. In her presentation during public comment, which can be viewed in its entirety below, Wheat compared behaviors of Bell and the other scandal-ridden Los Angeles County communities with specific examples of similar, albeit not as severe,  behavior that has occurred by current and past members of the Elk Grove City Council.

Even though Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly tried to cut her off, Wheat's point is that it happened in those communities and there are already markers that have been in Elk Grove. Just consider Mayor Ly's unending personal featherbedding quest to get a cushy full-time salary even while the city would continue to employee a city manager and a full compliment of executives.

Another point in case might be the overly cozy relationship between city council members and the professional staff on display at almost every meeting. 

Ask yourself - how may times have you heard a council member heap praise, I mean the type of praise a parent might give to their five-year-old child who just mastered tying their shoe on any of the city's $200,000-plus salaried employees?  While that in itself does not point to any nefarious activity, let's look at the reverse.

How many times have you ever heard a city council member scrutinize reports provided by staff? How many times were they questioned, really hard, probing questions, in public about their findings? 

If you are like us, you probably have to go back to former City Attorney Susan Cochrane to see when one of the executive staff was put to task at a council meeting. 

In this way, it seems the city council has abdicated their oversight role in the management of the city and have developed chummy relationships where employees like city planner Christopher Jordan is called "CJ" from the dais as if they are playing a game of skins and shirts basketball.

The role of the city council is to provide staff their imperatives and to ensure through deliberate public oversight that they are doing the work of citizen stakeholders, not some Armani-suit-wearing lobbyist or real estate developer. Take a lesson in leadership - don't be their buds, be the demanding boss because anything less leads to the Bell-type situations, and as we all know, corruption is usually rooted out in the end.

But just in case Mayor Ly and his colleagues continue to develop their overly cozy relationship with city staff, much less their well-heeled contributors, they might end up learning some lessons from former and infamous Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. 

No - we are not talking about the Blago we all heard about who tried shaking down a children's hospital or selling Barrack Obama's vacated Senate seat among his several crimes. We are speaking of Blago, prisoner no. 40892-424 as described by Bob Simon on this morning's edition of NPR's Weekend Edition. Story can be heard here.

As described by his fellow prisoners, Blago has transformed into a person with "no ego, no arrogance and most importantly with humble humility."

Blago had to go to prison for 14 years to learn how to rid himself of arrogance and learn humility. Our city council can, if they desire, learn these lessons of humility now, not with a prisoner number affixed to their back.         

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Gregory Jones said...

Regarding asking staff hard questions -- I'd like to respond to that from my experience as a former local baby politician (school board member). We had a board made up of people who would probably never meet in their own personal social circles -- which was a strength due to the multiple perspectives. We were seldom surprised by anything from the public, each other, or staff --- somebody probably had already asked the question and looked into it.

Staff is hired for their expertise and ability to deal with all those outside powers-that-be bureaucracies. They provided agenda packages for meetings with detailed information for everything. We received them early enough to review them ahead of time. Doing my homework was a built-in expectation. I frequently had questions.

I never pulled a surprise attack on staff -- good manners and courtesy. I let them know that some of my concerns would be asked openly at the meeting for public clarity/ understanding. It gave them the opportunity to prepare. Occasionally, my question would result in the whole thing just going away. Most of the board members did likewise (There was one that occasionally provided an entertaining/scary exception).

Inappropriately cozy? I think not. Do you really want your elected officials gaming/ attacking staff?

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