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The wonderland of local politics

Posted: Friday, Nov 22nd, 2013

The word on the street for weeks has been Karina Cervantez and Felipe Hernandez as the new mayor/vice mayor, so the Nov. 19 election-selection-coronation process had all the uncertainty of a race between a cheetah and a fireplug. Despite the nominees already having the expressed support of four councilmembers (and presumably their own), other backers lined up to endorse them. 

The first was director of the Monterey-Santa Cruz Building Construction Council Ron Cheshire, who also attended the Oct. 8 meeting to advocate successfully for the council’s new union-friendly policy regarding city construction contracts. Cheshire praised the city in comparison to other communities who say, “We’ve got to do something for business ... we’ve got to do something for people who have lots of money.” Then added, “But not this council!”

Though there are businesses around who might agree the current City Council hasn’t done much for them, the city government doesn’t seem too unfriendly to people with lots of money. I recall city hall being investigated by the Grand Jury for questionable redevelopment loans, including one to Santa Cruz developer George Ow, Jr., and I don’t recall ever seeing Mr. Ow down on Rodriguez Street bumming spare change for a bus ticket. 

Cheshire was followed by the Central Labor Council’s Robert Chacanaca, who also boosted the pro-union ordinance on Oct. 8. He added his support for the nominations, and praised the currently entrenched council majority it in contrast to “the old City Council and the old way of doing business, which was not beneficial to this community ... never has been, and we won’t ever see it come back.” All that is required is being young enough not to remember the relative economic health and social unity before the cannery strike, Loma Prieta earthquake, and district lawsuit turmoil combined to tear things apart.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo made repeated trips to the podium to support the nominations, but also to allude negatively to one of the three petitions being circulated seeking to change the current off-stage mayoral selection process to one of simple numerical rotation from district to district so all councilmembers have an equal opportunity to serve. He defended the current method as being a very democratic way to choose the mayor and vice mayor.  Since he only had two or three minutes to talk, I guess he lacked enough time to explain how the positions being chosen by four people is somehow more democratic than the previous method of the entire community deciding.

I’m actually glad the selections turned out as they did.  The positions going to his wife Karina Cervantez and his fellow Watsonville Brown Beret co-founder Felipe Hernandez succeeded in maintaining his grip on the City Council from faraway Sacramento, but also clearly illustrated the need to remove the selection of mayor from a politically powerful few.

Though the position of mayor is sometimes described as ceremonial, in 2010 Assemblyman Alejo himself proved how very unceremoniously it can be exploited when as mayor he used his power of setting the Council agenda to attempt fluoridating Watsonville while accepting support for his assembly race from the fluoride lobby, plus additional support from the UFW while he attempted to rename our downtown Plaza after its co-founder Dolores Huerta.   

Another of the petitions would prevent such politically-motivated renaming of public properties by putting such decisions to a community vote, and the third prevents the Council majority from naming a political ally to fill a Council vacancy by requiring a vote of district residents. Perhaps Assemblyman Alejo believes the most democratic way of taking such actions is through a handful of councilmembers instead of the voice of the people, but he’ll need more than three minutes of fast talking to sway me.

Unfortunately, Assemblyman Alejo trumpeting his opposition to the initiatives while controlling the city government may be enough to doom them. Unlike secret ballots, initiatives involve writing your name and address on a public record, and there are many residents who might be intimidated by the possibility of appearing on a resulting government enemies list. 

This reminds me of the archetypal model for an overly powerful city government, the Tammany Hall political machine under “Boss” Tweed that controlled New York City 150 years ago. Who knows, we might even have more than one person controlling the local machine ... a Boss Tweedledee and a Boss Tweedledum?

It just gets curiouser and curiouser.


Steve Bankhead is a resident of Watsonville and a frequent contributor to the Register-Pajaronian. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Register-Pajaronian.

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