4 Degrees of Separation
By Merrill Whatley
Shortly after our January 11 VCLA session, I took a trip to Pittsburgh for work. As I write this, I am on Southwest Airlines, flying to Denver on my way back home via Burbank.
In the morning portion of the Local Government focus session, the subjects we covered about city government, county government and special districts may not have a greater available organizational and cultural juxtaposition in America than what I just experienced on this trip to Pennsylvania, and I hope to be able to cast a certain light on the session by way of contrast and comparison.
First, though, I want to make a more general note regarding my experience of VCLA on the whole up to this point, again through this filter of travel. Conversations I took part in with life-long Western Pennsylvanians were dramatically informed by my recent learnings. I never expected to be asked, outside of the VCLA experience, what our greatest crop exports were, yet there I was at the Noodlehead noodle shop in Pittsburgh having a conversation about agriculture in Ventura County. That conversation transitioned into housing, education, tax burden distribution and more.
I felt like the Karate Kid when he realized all of the house-painting and car-waxing had been clever preparation for a more meaningful purpose.
On to those contrasts: if you were to retrace my trip while wearing VCLA goggles, the first thing you might notice when you leave the Pittsburgh airport is that you will likely travel through township after borough after city on your way to your destination. You won’t find folks in “unincorporated Allegheny County.” This stands in stark contrast to what we have in Ventura County – cities, unincorporated areas in the county and special districts.
In the morning portion of our VCLA session, we were fortunate to have a discussion panel with representatives from those levels of local government: Rob McCoy, the Mayor of Thousand Oaks; Kelly Long, Supervisor, County of Ventura; and Dan Paranick, District Manager of Rancho Simi Recreation District. Often in this discussion, governance questions turned to a question of control: for the Mayor, feeling like the state exercised too much control over the rights of cities; for the Supervisor, feeling pinched by the state and by the proposition-based system of governance, through unfunded mandates and often under-informed choices (respectively) handcuffing the board; and for the District Manager – and this issue touches all levels of government – pensions are an onerous issue for which there seems to be little recourse.
One concern of note that came up for each panelist is common to concerns we have heard in previous sessions: a lack of affordable housing in the county. It affects each of these governmental representatives in slightly different ways, from combating homelessness to retaining talented workers to working with landowners and developers in the SOAR era. It seems we will hear yet more about this in future sessions.
These three levels of government – county, city and special district – each endeavor to address issues on their own, and (if possible) they try to address issues in complementary ways. A special district such as the Port of Hueneme, written about separately in a post by Franki Williams, works hand-in-glove with the city of Port Hueneme to provide benefits to the city from port activities. Aside from funding and revenue-sharing concerns, the city may ask the special district to help with some of the negative environmental effects port traffic brings; the board of the Port of Hueneme may also bring to the attention of the city certain concerns that they may have regarding affordable housing. Good communication between these levels of local government bring great potential for addressing issues that affect us all, and can lead to results such as the Port of Hueneme being named Greenest Port of the Year (again, see Franki’s article).
After the morning panel, we heard from the Community Development Director of the City of Thousand Oaks, Mark Towne, AICP. He described the efforts of Thousand Oaks to create a downtown core, to create a retail and entertainment destination, to improve the environment for pedestrians and to expand cultural and art opportunities. He also discussed population density in the City of Thousand Oaks, which is 2/3 the density of Ventura and less than 1/3 the density of Oxnard. While the total population of Thousand Oaks is second in the county behind Oxnard, Thousand Oaks contains over 55 square miles (to Oxnard’s 39 square miles and Ventura’s 32), so the question of population density – and aiming to increase density as part of the formula to help with our housing crisis – will continue to be a topic of concern for the city.
I am now done traveling and back at home in Ventura. Zooming out a bit, seeing how our local governments work – and how they at times try to work together – gives me a good deal of hope that we will find solutions to the multiple issues we face. Observing a very different set of structures through the small window of my visit to Pittsburgh, I saw there a structure that seemed to place the different organizations into greater conflict with each other rather than encouraging any sort of cooperation.
By design or not, elements of California’s local government structure seem to break down walls between different entities. Perhaps the lack of party affiliation helps here, as that somewhat-tribal connection is absent at the local level (along with the attendant funding of party races); perhaps it’s that our challenges are so great that we have no choice but to work together. In any case, and to paraphrase the panelists from our morning, when we get together, treat each other civilly and listen to each other’s points of view, it feels like there is little we can’t do.
Additionally, regarding Pittsburgh: it was 4 degrees there when I went to the airport, and I had to chisel the trunk open to get my luggage out; perhaps we are more open to working together here because it’s just so nice out.
About the Author
Merrill Whatley, Founder and President, Membership Vision
Merrill believes digital communication is a priority for churches, that an authentic and natural online presence can build and strengthen relationships. He has been a communications consultant to multiple Episcopal congregations since the year 2000, and what he has learned and witnessed over the years has informed his aims with Membership Vision: to create something simple and sustainable for churches that encourages connection, and for churches to be able to tell their story in such a way that others feel invited to take part in the telling — in short, freeing clergy and staff to perform their mission. He runs operations in Ventura and enjoys both web and actual surfing.