Among the responsibilities of city clerks in California is to oversee local elections, the petitions and the signatures candidates must gather, as well as the details of council meeting agendas, etc. Small stuff all of which can be enormously important.
When I saw this on the ballot my thoughts immediately turned to an episode I covered as a reporter between 2000 and 2003 in the city of South Gate off the 710 freeway southeast of LA.
South Gate was the first of the southeast cities to explode in wild and bizarre corruption. In this case, a political operative engineered the takeover of the city council. What ensued involved the weirdest and most twisted examples of municipal corruption seen in recent years in Southern California.
Among the few institutions standing in the way of this political operative – who got himself elected city treasurer and controlled how his council majority voted — was the office of the city clerk, occupied at the time by a young single mother, a teetotaler, who proved quite competent.
(Someone – many suspected the political operative — later put out a political mailer with her face, a completely fictitious and forged DUI citation in her name, alleging she’d been arrested for drunken driving, which was a lie, all under the scandalous headline “Don’t Vote For the Boozer Carmen Avalos.” This literally was mailed out. I still have a copy. It was not even the most bizarre mailer sent to South Gate voters during these years.)
As an elected official, she had power and independence from the council. As he and his council majority began to fleece city hall and fire independent department heads who stood up to him, she used her office to stop his most egregious electoral behavior and, above all, to work with other elected officials to bring attention to what was happening. He and others in his pay literally gave out police badges to cronies and raffled off a city-owned house.
(This is all very well documented. One place you can read the complete story and all the sordid details is in my second book, which includes the chapter “The Saga of South Gate” – See the link to the Kindle in Comments. The book is also available at South Pas Library, last I checked.)
But one reason why South Gate eventually emerged from this soap opera of corruption is that it had an elected and thus independent city clerk, who did not answer to the city council and whom he was unable to defeat. The political operative ended up doing many years in federal prison, his council majority recalled, and calm returned to South Gate.
I believe Measure C is a mistake. We should in no way give up that check and balance. It’s true that a new city clerk has to learn the job and that anyone can run for it and it pays very little. It’s also true that that person can be incompetent, or simply inexperienced.
That means we to behave as alert and informed citizens and pay attention to whom we elect to the job, who will perform that check on the power of the council — for its mundane responsibilities belie its importance.
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