The Merced County chapter of the League of Women Voters recently published its January 2006 newsletter concerning a meeting on county land-use policy. Badlands attended and reported on the meeting, Unanswered questions on Merced growth, Wednesday, December 7th, 2005. That meeting was bogus. A large crowd was encouraged to write down questions about growth, listened to a panel of planners, and then the meeting was shut down -- the panel did not answer any of the questions. The reason given was that City Hall was not available beyond a certain time, that time arrived, therefore the meeting was over. There was also some funny business with the computer projector that took up additional (precious) time.
Soliciting questions from the public about growth in one of the two fastest growing regions in the state, and then not answering them but passing them on to the political classes, descends to the level of mere pandering to the remarkably corrupt local, pro-growth power structure of Merced.
While the Badlands editorial staff doesn’t mind critically covering local political events (we think that’s what journalism ought to be and used to be), the staff collectively winces while performing the unpleasant duty of criticizing the League of Women Voters. Badlands staff grew up listening to mothers talk about the League, reading League newsletters and voter education pamphlets. The staff learned its first lessons in democracy from League mothers.
But, says the Merced League, it distributed all the questions to the people that matter. These are the same people who have voted consistently for the development engulfing the county. These are the people who hold unanimously as their first, collective metaphysical principle, that “growth is inevitable.”
According to the newsletter, the League had retired UC professor, Dr. William Teitz compile all the questions and then they were sent to all the presenters (Teitz, the former county planning director and three city planners), the county Board of Supervisors, the mayors of the six cities in the county, and the Merced Sun-Star and Merced County Times.
The whole League-orchestrated Q-but-no-A “public meeting” was a hoax. Tietz, the retired UC professor, gave a very interesting, somewhat drastic presentation about Valley growth that might actually have had some impact if it had been given before UC Merced was a “done deal.” The county planning director (since demoted) gave a countywide overview. Three city planners provided their views on development in their cities. Fast-growing Atwater, strangely, was not represented.
Did the League want to put on an event about growth that looked like it was really open to public, in order to log it in under that title so that it could be referred to later as a real “public dialogue”? Were the planners and the questions window dressing in some sort of display? If it really had been set up to be a town hall meeting it would have gone on until 3 in the morning at a local church. Perhaps, League officers are just hooked on the architecture of these chambers of local government, in which officials are always seated above the public.
The miasma of growth now hangs over Merced political life like a permanent, toxic tule fog. The real war for the future of the county is all but won by developers. It’s a perfect game of political blackmail. The developers have their teeth deeply buried in county government now. If farmers who want to continue farming publicly criticize growth policies, things can happen. Everybody knows how this goes. But, dragging the tradition of the League of Women Voters into it stinks.
The League of Women Voters is committed to making democracy work in Merced, California, across the country and around the world,
Its newsletter claims.
Join us in educating and encouraging men and women to be active citizens and address the issues that affect our lives—election administration reform, campaign finance reform, civil and human rights, citizen engagement, judicial independence and criminal justice, education, health care, urban sprawl and our natural resources …
The newsletter urges. These are important values. Mothers in League chapters during the dark days of McCarthyism were accused of being communists for standing up for these values. Right here in the San Joaquin Valley, 50 years ago. Imagine!
Respect for their mothers’ political bravery requires Badlands staff to make a critical remark of a greatly respected institution: it takes more than a scarf to make a League president. It takes a willingness to stand up for values, which, although non-partisan and thoroughly American, are always controversial. If you don’t stand up for them, but just quote them in your newsletter, you’re betraying them.
But, not content with League value statements, this League chapter has to drag Margaret Mead into it.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. -- Margaret Mead
This business of using old values, hard fought for, as advertising and propaganda for an organization that dares not understand what these values mean, and what they cost these women, and for how long, is a widespread bad habit or our era, drowning in propaganda. But those values meant something and should not be simply stuck in a newsletter like decoration or a shopping ad.
Just because you’re not on the front lines of things, doesn’t mean you have to be in the lap of power, either. Just because you are not contributing to a public dialogue does not mean you have to fake one. If you aren’t on the front lines as the League used to be, you ought to go have tea somewhere out of the way.
The way the League handled these questions, they became ammunition and rhetoric for the status quo, thoughtlessly committed to catastrophic growth in Merced County but wise to any advantage provided that will make them look less than the authors of catastrophe. An opportunity for a real public town hall meeting was misrepresented and misused. It was as bad and Cardoza the Shrimp Slayer’s “town hall meeting” in the same venue several months earlier.
Rumors have reached the Badlands staff that the League official facilitating this meeting is planning a career in elective office. Considering that we’ve seen more democratic public meetings at Chairman “Fox Hills” Sloan’s county Planning Commission, we’re taking an early, negative stand on this candidacy. In our view, Merced does not need more of the same-old, same-old well-known substance that seems to get tracked onto every institution in this county, regardless of former ideals. Developers have their teeth in the throat of local government here. This is no time for the League of Women Voters to be used as a platform for political postures.
The League newsletter concluded with a stirring letter from a mother in 1951 about how to raise a democratic child:
HELP MAKE DEMOCRACY LIVE
I can help make democracy live because the best citizen is not the one who knows the most, but the one who cares the most. Because I am a mother, I can teach my children to care about people and those values essential to democracy.
If I show my child that his rights and possessions are respected, if I teach him to take his turn and to do his share, if I help him to feel loved and valued for himself, I’ll be teaching him to believe in the inalienable rights of all people.
I will not train my child in blind obedience born of fear, for that makes dictators possible. I will expect only the conformity suitable to his age. I will not demand acceptance of all my opinions. I will tolerate the stress and strain of disagreement in order to encourage that free expression of ideas which enriches group life and in order to further the self-discipline required for democratic living. My child can become truly democratic only by practicing that way of life.
By my example, I will seek to show my child that democracy is worth all it costs. I will obey the laws, even those I dislike. I will pay my taxes without evasion. I will be fair to people who differ from me in race, religion, or political philosophy. I will study my government in order to vote intelligently. I will take time to serve my community.
In such simple everyday ways we can do our share as citizens. If we parents care enough, we can make democracy live.
Martha Fugate Pitman
Reprinted from the July 1951 Parents’ Magazine
What a beautiful dream, and how widely shared it was in the Valley in those years. They were not the easiest years economically or politically, but there was that sweet dedication of parents who had known depression and war and had transmuted harsh experience into love and care for the next generation. And with that love went these high ideals, League of Women Voter ideals. There was a code for “democratic living,” and we thought we were learning it. But we let the code down, not understanding, I think, the amount of struggle that lay just behind it, in perhaps the previous three generations. It may well have been children of League mothers of that era who reminded us of Susan B. Anthony, Mother Jones and the other heroic women in American history. We inherited it; we didn’t earn it. Eventually, that movement for democracy, became fatally involved with the power aspirations of the Democratic Party and was corrupted as horribly as conservatism, allied with the Republican Party, is now being corrupted.
In fact, unfortunately, the values Mrs. Pitman so eloquently articulated during the recession of the early 1950s, are a code of conduct almost guaranteed for failure in practical affairs in America. Unless checked by concerted public action, the lying, bullying, lawless thief is far more likely to gain power and wealth in this society.
I wish there had been a real town hall meeting on development because I think it is only in that sort of forum that real public power over the public future can be developed. But, following the well-established pattern of orchestration established by UC Merced and its local boosters in and out of government, that did not happen this time.
And time is running out. If the Merced public is not to be coerced into complete slurbocracy, town meetings in which citizens – whether feeling safe or not – do get up and speak their minds directly to power are necessary. Otherwise, the Merced public cannot expect anything but more of the slurbocracy now engulfing it. The developers came to play and they wrote many of the rules of the game.
Here are the unanswered questions, rescued from the League of Women Voters’ dead question office. They are doubtlessly now being eagerly studied by our political leaders as carefully as a comment letter on an environmental impact report. The Badlands staff is holding its breath and turning blue in the face waiting for the detailed answers the supervisors, mayors and newspaper editors are going to give in public to these questions.
1. Does the urban growth of Merced County benefit current residents economically more than outside investors/developers?
2. How does it reflect on our community when we raise children that can’t afford to live or work here? Why must we continue the urban growth of Merced County at the expense of our quality of living?
3. How will the urbanization affect our cost of living? Do we as citizens, have rights to object to any of your plans if we don’t like them?
4. Why has growth not taken place along Hwy 5?
5. Where are all these future residents going to work? And shop? And go for recreation? Is this more cars on the roads driving out of the area, spending money in other areas?
6. What happens to the houses + land that is left over from the development that is moving to the north?
7. How will the proposed Wal-Mart distribution center affect traffic on 99 and air quality?
8. What are some major planning issues? Are the requirements that developers have to meet to develop really feasible? These requirements can sometimes kill development and instead maybe could make incentives or fee reduction.
9. Why so much low density residential in the county expansion plans?
10. Are the community plans financially constrained? Who is paying for the new infrastructure + expanded services?
11. Should the county and cities adopt a jobs/housing balance into their general plans?
12. In terms of the growth in Franklin / Planada what is the plan for wastewater?
13. What steps are being taken to expand the city of Merced (i.e. ready existing streets and freeways) to accommodate so many more people?
14. What conjectured growth could be attributing to U.C. Merced? (As a single catalyst)
15. Should major roadways be determined before development is approved?
16. Do you foresee an eastside freeway being constructed? The route could follow the old road before the railroad. The route would create beltways around urban areas like Visalia, Fresno, Merced, Modesto, and Sacramento.
17. What about roads?
18. Due to infrastructure capacity constraints can new alternatives be used, for example, recycled water (tertiary treatment-package plants) to meet the needs of new development?
19. Has the underground water supply for the San Joaquin Valley been quantified? If not how can continued urban growth continue?
20. Growth is inevitable however it is taking away the farmland. The same people wanting to build are the ones that will complain when food is expensive. Why do they always choose to use high producing agricultural areas to build houses? Why can't they use non-producing land?
21. In view of the diminishing acreage of productive agriculture land, an irreplaceable resource will boards of supervisors and city councils ever be able to contribute to the preservation of agricultural land? If not what do you suggest?
22. Can agricultural businesses continue to survive at the height of urban development?
23. What’s going to happen to the farm based business with urban growth?
24. Has there been consideration of growing up in multiple story housing complexes in order to preserve agricultural land?
25. Where’s the water?
26. What is the proposed plan for wastewater tax for?
27. Why is the prime farmland scenario unrealistic?
28. Food security requires farmland be protected. Should we require protection by state or federal government to protect farmland like environment is protected?
29. Why are the farmers so dead set against urbanization? Can’t individual farms continue to farm in the middle of growth?
30. To curb urban encroachment into Prime farmland is anything being done to encourage high-rise apartments/condos & office space?
31. Who should determine if a local food supply is important far future generations? Should food security be a public policy issue?
32. What measures are being taken to 1) To ensure resource conservation and 2.) Protect wildlife and natural areas?
33. Can the panelists comment on the potential for collaborative planning between local agencies for regional development in Merced County and throughout the central valley.
34. Dr.Teitz you write in your report that “Valley residents are skeptical about their government institutions ability to solve problems.” (Pg. 80) What can governments do to reduce the skepticism and meet the needs of the future?
35. With all these general plan updates going on, where to how can individuals (local) organizations be most effective in getting what WE want? (Versus out of area investors) Can the panelists comment on the potential for collaborative planning between local agencies for regional development in Merced County and throughout the central valley?
36. You mentioned “resistance to growth” from the Bay Area (as one of the forces of population growth+ urbanization to the valley) what have they done and why can’t we also resist such growth?