Friday, December 16, 2011


Just the facts, Ma'am...
 - Joe Friday

A SMALL WATER DISTRICT serving a tiny community in the Sierra foothills finds that its income doesn’t cover its costs. A plebiscite is placed before voters regarding a rate increase. It fails. Unable to make ends meet, the district manager shrugs: “Maybe we’ll have to close up shop.” Howls of protest follow. “This is just another example of big government taking our money!” “The unions sold us out!” [The water district employs six (6) people.] “The board members forgot where they came from!” “You’re just punishing the voters for telling you no!”

Digging deeper, one finds that a former iteration of the Board, concerned about providing a secure source of water, purchased a dam and the rights to the water reserved behind it. Knowing that their future constituency needed the water but the current constituency did not favor higher rates, the Board made no accommodation for paying for the purchase. New members elected to the Board pledged to continue to hold the line against rate increases. Once seated, reality sets in. An outstanding debt exists to pay for capital acquisitions and improvements to serve ratepayers who desire a reliable, uninterrupted source of water. But the rates don’t cover the costs and the Board can’t give the dam back. Confronted with the big picture, the Trustees are stuck: there is but one course of action.

Never in a position to garner all the facts or see the entire big picture, some ratepayers demand a more responsive board. They demand Board change. Again. And again. And again.

THE SAME SCENARIO PLAYS OUT in water districts, lighting districts, town councils and school boards across the country; and now, even Congress. Agenda-driven candidates are elected to positions at their own risk.  Once sworn to “…defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic…” these new representatives find themselves in an unavoidable conflict between what they said they intended to do and what actually needs to be done.  Myopic adherence to the narrow view that got the individual elected can sink the governmental organization.  Acting responsibly to meet the needs of the entire constituency can sink a political career.

IN A REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, here’s how it works: As the electorate, we pay the elected to grasp the big picture. We understand and accept that the big picture is not something we have the advantage or privilege of seeing. Truth be told, we don’t want to see it. The big picture is often just too damned complex – except in the example of the water district where it’s pretty damned simple.  Never-the-less, we expect our elected representative to get the big picture and then to make choices based upon the big picture.

(c) California State History Museum
Skewering, brow-beating, slandering, editorializing against or condemning a good person who has risen to a legislative position simply because her or she bases important decisions on an understanding of all the of facts, including those not available to us – that is, condemning someone for doing their elected duty – doesn’t add to the debate. Neither does it strengthen our democracy, contribute to getting work done in our school districts or our water districts nor make us look as if we paid attention in Civics class back in 12th grade.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. Let them drink cake!

    Boards job is to provide safe dependable water. Customers responsibility is to pay for it. Everyone does not get a vote on every decision.

    Good post on an issue much bigger than a rural water district but no less important to those affected.

  2. "So when," you may ask, "does the public decide that a Board member or Trustee has fallen short of meeting his or her obligation to the public he or she is supposed to serve?"

    I can't answer that directly but can only share that in one of my positions, I worked for a board wherein two Trustees opened and viewed-for-the-first-time the agenda at the meeting rather than previewing it prior to gavel. For dereliction, they should have been tossed.

    Instead, I was.

    Bottom line? Democracy only works when the electorate pays attention to the works of the elected.

  3. ...and again the messenger takes a misdirected bullet. But, then I know that tossing was ultimately a good thing as it provided new much greener pastures.