May 31, 2005 > Editorial: Engagement
A community outreach program is about to be set in motion for the city of Fremont. Deputy City Manager Christine Daniel presented a broad outline to the city council on May 24th stressing the need for effective, two-way communication. The impetus for action is the budget crunch and failure at the polls of Proposition V (Utility Tax), but the necessity for communication goes much deeper.
Exploring the word "engagement" gives some insight into the range of possibilities this process represents. Checking the American Heritage College dictionary, the term can mean anything from "a promise" or "a pledge" to "the condition of being in gear" or "a hostile encounter; a battle." The word seems appropriate since Fremont's outreach will most likely accomplish one of these definitions. The trick is to see if the proper definition will be "in gear" rather than "a hostile encounter."
There is little doubt in my mind that this exercise is an attempt to find out how to get an additional tax past the voters. Fremont's council and staff are convinced that without additional funds the city infrastructure will collapse. There is merit to this concern and the electorate may, in the end, decide to help the bureaucrats. A key decision in this process will be whether councilmembers and staff approach citizen dialogue with both ears open and brain engaged. Some comments from council were encouraging while others appear to fall back on the same logic that previously failed with voters.
Steve Cho emphasized a "team approach" and Anu Natarajan applauded starting the process early while Bob Wasserman cautioned about being "practical." Okay, so far, so good. Dominic Dutra asked the central question that must be answered before all others are asked... "What is getting in the way?" Bob Wieckowski, however, is so right and so wrong! He assumes that the only impediment to voter approval of additional taxes is to lecture them about how much it costs to repair roads. Yes, roads need to be repaired in a timely manner, but Bob, you have totally missed the reason for voter resistance. It isn't the roads, it's your attitude! Before bombarding citizens with specifics of road repair, it is best to start with a true dialogue where all parties listen to each other.
When discussing the merits or dangers of a "sunset" provision of a tax measure, it would be prudent to understand why so many citizens like the idea. Think about this Mr. Wieckowski, before dismissing this as "a gimmick." A council seat does not lay a mantle of infallibility on your head. It just might be possible to learn something from the huddled masses yearning to be free. We are "huddled" for protection. The question is, are we huddled with you or from you?
For what it is worth, my interpretation of the desire for a "sunset provision" stems from distrust when taxes are collected without controls. Although voters may appreciate the need for adequate funding, the question of trust arises. Do we, the voters, trust those in charge of the funds, to use them wisely? What is wrong with coming back to voters at intervals and proving prudent management to continue receipt of a tax? Doesn't this hold a politician's feet to the fire? There are arguments on both sides of this issue and I, for one, would like to hear an intelligent and cogent discussion of the merits and weaknesses of the case for a sunset provision. I would also like to know why a special safety tax has not been part of the discussion. Will the electorate support a tax aimed specifically for safety services? Hopefully, community outreach will include a discussion of all suggestions and possibilities.