Saturday, September 3, 2011


A joint county- and city-made fiasco at Brown Farm, city-owned and –operated county land between El Camino Real and Spitz Avenue, north of Cedardale Loop, features government mismanagement from top to bottom. Everything about this floodwater control project explains growing distrust of, and anger at, government for failing to manage resources and projects to serve the public. In this case, the county wasted $75,000, the city about $7,500; degraded conditions on 25 acres of public land by ignoring and thus violating relevant laws; and increased heath risks to thousands of county and city children and adults.

In 1991, the county prepared a flood-control plan for this area but shelved it for lack of funds to implement it. Later, the city bought the land. In 2011, when it received funds, the county pulled the plan off the shelf, secured right of entry from the city, and implemented the plan to enlarge berms and holding ponds.

In a modern-day inversion of the story of Rip Van Winkle, who awoke to a changed world, county and city acted as if nothing had changed in 20 years. In 1991, neither development on adjacent land south of Brown Farm nor West Nile Virus existed; by 2011, they did. But no one in county or city government consulted nearby residents, reviewed or revised the plan, or considered whether changed circumstances rendered the plan obsolete because of the risks of storing so much water, capable of breeding mosquitos, so close to so many people.

Indeed, no one in county or city government knew the magnitude of the risks: how many residents live, work, or drive, and what city or county facilities lie, within the three-mile radius of mosquitos’ range from their hatch. According to the 2010 census, 68,000 people live within this area; probably tens of thousands more drive every day into or through this area. In-range facilities include several elementary and middle schools, Mayfield High School, health and senior centers, and, ironically, City Hall. Yet no one in city or county government considered that larger holding basins and a later additional one perpetuated and augmented a known health hazard.

But everyone in county and city government considered preventing flood damage to property but not protecting citizens from disease or death. Of course, in the usual double-standardism of government, the city has a law on West Nile Virus which requires citizens to eliminate standing water in, among others, flower pot saucers and birdbaths, or face a penalty of up to $500 and 90 days in jail. But it does not enforce the law on identified violators.

County and city crews incompetently executed on-site work despite taking short-cuts contravening applicable laws. The plan called for a 60-foot-wide berm; the county built an 80-foot-wide one—wasting effort, time, and money; and requiring on-site excavation of a large, shallow basin for the necessary soil. The county strip-cleared the land, destroyed vegetation, ruined habitat, killed wildlife, and created a dustbowl and an eyesore. It neither planned nor budgeted for land restoration or reseeding. The city, in widening two trenches connecting holding basins, made them run uphill; after returning to correct the grade, it left them still running uphill. No one supervised any government or contractor work.

(The pictures below, from top to bottom, show one "before" and two "after" pictures. The two at the top show much the same ground from roughly opposite angles; the one at the bottom shows one of the trenches running upgrade.)

Responding to complaints by nearby residents and after negotiations with them, the city agreed to reconfigure the site to make all water flow northward and to restore the site. Acting in bad faith, it funneled some water into a vegetated channel which runs uphill and stores water closer to more people, and directed the rest into the existing system. The city thus made an additional, entirely unnecessary, and harder-to-treat holding basin and wasted more money.

So the county and city created more problems than they solved. They increased risks to people; lied to, or dealt in bad faith with, citizens; wasted money; and turned green fields into a tan wasteland.

In another meeting, now with councilors and managers, the city agreed to promptly develop and implement a plan addressing residents’ concerns, ensuring their involvement, and establishing two-way communication. No resident not involved believed that the city would keep its word, do the right work, or do the work right. Three weeks later: no word, some work.

Distrust of government extends beyond residents witness to this fiasco, for good reasons. First, City Council spends too much time debating policies or laws, too little time ensuring their efficient implementation or enforcement. Second, city managers and department directors do not ensure efficient implementation or enforcement. Between erratic compliance with policies and laws, incompetent performance, dishonest communications, and avoidance of citizen participation, city government fails to serve the public interest. Citizens are justifiably distrustful, and many are righteously angry.

Whether the city remedies the Brown Farm fiasco, reforms its approach to public service, and rectifies its attitude toward the public remains to be seen. But, as the election approaches, candidates should address the issues of honest government and efficient management.

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