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March 1, 2005 > Editorial: Realpolitik in Fremont

Editorial: Realpolitik in Fremont

There are moments when politicians are useful. Appearance and substance can be equally important and astute politicians will often determine the best way to present a problem to find acceptable answers. A problem arises when politicians fail when confronted by an issue that needs to be addressed publicly and with a bit of finesse. Witness the recent uproar over Chief Steckler's decision to modify the alarm policy of the Fremont Police Department.

While the council remained mum and indicated that this decision was ostensibly outside their responsibility, their constituents were treated to a rude awakening. Alarms, while giving comfort to those who use them, were creating a problem for police services. This is not a new problem, yet remained a quiet one in our community. The sudden move by the chief and subsequent community dismay was one of appearance and disclosure.

Mayor Wasserman said that decisions of this type are in the domain of the chief of police, not the city council. He should know since he is a former police chief. Unfortunately, he is partially wrong in this case. Although the chief of police is the correct person to judge technical and operational policies within his department, when policies of sufficient magnitude affect the community, others must be involved. The legitimate role of elected politicians is to be responsive to the electorate, determine rational and legal policies that do not conflict with the community at large and guide staff through the office of City Manager with legal advice from the City Attorney.

Councilmember Dominic Dutra moved toward full disclosure when he stated that the council had been consulted about the change in alarm policy prior to public disclosure and he fully supported Chief Steckler. He is to be commended since the impression that was being foisted on the public was that the chief made the move on his own without consultation. Except for the statement by Mr. Dutra, the council appeared to be distancing itself from the decision and any responsibility for the subsequent furor. This is indicative of a major problem that is not new to Fremont.

The council is much like the board of directors of a public company. They are responsible for the smooth operation of the city through communication with upper management and ensuring that the public is represented and protected from harmful policies while developing a vision for the future. These roles require an appreciation for practical constraints and an understanding of their constituency so municipal decisions are defensible, acceptable and presented in a politically sensitive manner.

Fremont's City Council and City Manager failed to fulfill their obligation to the public by allowing this decision to be executed in a hasty manner. Even if the problem is a long-standing quarrel between police and the alarm industry, the public has the right to know about these facts before being thrown into a brutal, public brawl that spreads confusion, fear and unfavorable media attention. The indication that council members were notified serially - a possible violation of the Brown Act - and allowed the opportunity to affect the manner in which the new policy was presented reveals a lack of appreciation for public sentiment. To leave the chief exposed without acknowledgement of their involvement is disingenuous. The city council should have considered the consequences and counseled a more moderate approach to the problem. Suggestions might have included a longer transition period or a blue ribbon panel given 30 days to investigate the facts and make a public finding followed by recommended changes in a rational manner. The resulting policy would probably be very similar, but the pain and anguish by the public would have been avoided.

We have new members of the council and they may be partially excused for their inexperience, but those who have been savvy political members of the council should take a good look at this mess and admit their culpability. Council members should not be polled behind closed doors; major policy decisions rightfully belong at public meetings. Democracy is a messy business, but avoiding exposure to public scrutiny is far worse.

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