Friday, May 4, 2012

San Jose-A Limited Liability Corporation

Eyes Wide Shut” best describes many of the residents and politicians residing in and running the City of San Jose.  I wonder, do the ordinary tax paying citizens really see what is happening to their City and do they even care?   This weekend Cinco Di Mayo celebrations will go on without the City of San Jose’s blessings again for the second year in a row.  In fact, this year there exists a heightened sense of concern in the wake of the killing of a juvenile in Roosevelt park this week, a sense of concern on the heels of one of the most important votes for city employees and the way city services are delivered to the citizens it serves.   

Budget cuts, class warfare, less-than-truthful politicians, and an ever increasing population dependent on government services is literally tearing down the City in front of our very eyes and it is a crying shame.  San Jose, once the 7th largest economy in the world, is now 48th according to last reports and continues on the decline.  San Jose no longer stands apart from the rest of famous sprawling locales throughout the Country; instead it resides in the shadows of Detroit, Cleveland, and our own Vallejo, California.  So, how did we get here and where are we going?  That is a question that has too many answers to cover in one blog post without turning it into a 1200 page novel.  However, living and working in the City for over 50 years has given me a perspective that I believe is unique to most of us baby boomers. 

When we were kids, our parents not only resided in the City, they worked there too; of course those were the days when folks could actually afford to live here.  San Jose kind of reminded you of ‘Leave it to Beaver’, a 60’s Television show depicting the ideal American family and the community they lived in;  you know, where Mr. Cleaver drove 5 miles to work and June stayed home to rear the kids.  We all know now that the show was just that, a show and had nothing to do with reality.  Not once did my mom serve up dinner in an evening dress with a string of cultured pearls around her neck, nor did my step-father sit down with fork and knife in hand wearing a suit and tie.  But the Clevers lived and worked in “Pleasantville” not Stockton or Discovery Bay and that may be one of many things that sicken our own community as a whole. 

When I first came to work for San Jose Fire Department there was a residency requirement in effect.  Every member of the fire and police departments had to reside within 30 miles of First and Santa Clara Streets.  However, there was no real enforcement of the restriction and it was soon abandoned after it was discovered that so many firefighters, including chief officers, already lived outside the city limits and therefore, they would have to force over half the department to pull up stakes and move back.   And it wasn’t just cops and fireman, it was many other city employees and private folks as well because the truth was, most of us could not afford to live here, not in your own home anyway.  Why else would a family choose to live in Stockton or Manteca instead of San Jose?  With the restriction gone, we soon had folks not only living outside of the city limits; we had guys living outside the State!  

Then the practice of hiring fire chiefs from the outside became the norm for our past city managers and mayors.  Why you ask?  So they could hire someone who had no previous ties to the community and to have total control of that individual and therefore the department.  Consequently, incompetency soon began to infect SJFD like a ravage uncontrollable disease with no cure.  The hiring of Robert Osby from Inglewood was the beginning of the end of what was once one of the most innovative fire departments in the country.  Sadly, what that man single-handedly did to San Jose Fire Department was nothing short of a crime and the damage still reverberates through the department to this day.   Regrettably, the hiring from outside the ranks continued and as a result, more irreversible damage.  Robert Brooks, the poster child for incompetent managers, was totally inept and yet it took the Mayor and City Manager, Regina K. Williams, over a year to find him.  In the interim, a lame duck acting chief with no chance of winning the position took SJFD down an even steeper slope. 

So what does the living locale of city employees have anything to do with the issues that plague our City?  I submit more than you might believe.  Think about it, when employees do not live in the city in which they work, what stake do they have in making the city better?  The attitude of “What the hell do I care, I don’t live there” soon was the justification for poor work performance and even perhaps wages and benefits that some employees in the “know” knew the city could not sustain.  Now that might anger some folks I know and used to work with, but if we don’t start asking these questions, then the future of my department and for the City of San Jose is sure to face continued “fiscal emergencies” and cutbacks to the point where there is nobody left.   

Now I’m no psychologist, but I don’t think it takes a PhD to get my point.  You see, fireman, cops, city parks crews and clerk typists all pay taxes too, but if the local taxes you pay are not in the community in which you live, then it really doesn’t have a negative effect on your pocketbook or surroundings does it?  Pensions and raises that city workers receive benefit you as an employee, but what effect does it have in Stockton where you live?  What about the hiring of department heads that have never lived in our community, and therefore, totally unaware of the demographics, history and void of the pride of being from San Jose?  They have no roots here, no ties to the community and the people they were hired to serve.  Most of these folks that the city hires from the outside are lame ducks that are interested in nothing more than padding their future retirement benefits and moving on.  Further, because of Measure J passed years ago transferring the majority of power from the city manager to the mayor, these department heads are at the totally mercy of guys like Chuck Reed.  At one time, when you really screwed up, you and your family had to face the shame of seeing everyone you know at the supermarket, local restaurant and school functions.  Now, you mess up and you go home to Bend, Oregon and who knows the difference.  Not only that, for the “biggies” of local government, you can steal taxpayers dollars meant for essential services through a fencing operation called Redevelopment Agencies and then go home to Tampa, Florida without so much as a middle finger from your once friends and colleagues when they discover you have been ripping them off all those years.

So now the question becomes, where do we go from here?  Obviously, forcing city workers and politicians to live within the city limits is no longer an option; nor can you make city employees become more concerned for the finances of a city they don’t live in.  This is why I foresee city services almost entirely going private, including the fire department.   Non personal employees working for independent corporations and entities is already beginning to take shape in San Jose as I write this post.  Future wage and retirement negotiations will be a thing of the past, replaced with contracts drawn up by city attorneys at the direction of one person, the Mayor.  Dealing with city workers will be no different than interacting with Macy department store employees.  Complaints will be dealt with by a customer service representative based in Atlanta, Georgia, not 200 E. Santa Clara Street and don’t forget about those nice emergency medical services you receive in the comfort of your home or business; along with the bill you’re going to get in the mail 30 days later from Metro Fire and Emergency Services.  And what about all those nice new libraries the Mayor seems to be obsessed with?  Those will become the new portal for city services for the poor in the village they reside in. 

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