Under contract

The turmoil in Maywood has reduced city government there to an apparent phantom. Maywood has no police department now and no city staff. The city's day-to-day operations will be managed by the neighboring city of Bell. Cudahy, a city just as tiny as Maywood which had been policed under a contract with Maywood's PD, was scrambling to secure law enforcement services from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

As Noel Brinkerhoff at AllGov.com saw it, "Accounting, street maintenance, parks, even public safety now will be handled by companies or other local governments, while Maywood becomes the first-ever '100%' contracted-out city in California. Well, almost 100%. The city council voted to keep itself on the payroll, along with the city manager and city attorney."

Except Maywood isn't the "first ever" contract city in California. More than a few municipalities in Los Angeles County began as "100% contract" cities in the late 1950s. Lakewood was the first in 1954. When Lakewood incorporated, the city "staff" consisted of a city manager, his secretary, and a city attorney. All municipal services were provided then by the county or through special districts (as they had been since the late 1920s when the unincorporated Lakewood area began suburbanizing).

Lakewood was the first so-called "phantom city" - and disparaged by academic critics for that fact. They imagined that contract cities weren't "real" in some fundamental way, as if urbanism had only one possible form. They also feared that mostly working class electorates would fail at community building, as if only elites had the capacity to lead. And to legitimize their contempt, they asserted that new cities in Los Angeles County formed primarily as "white flight" refuges from big cities that were becoming increasingly African-American.

Which, of course, wasn't true in 1950 in Lakewood, where the majority of residents had come from small and middle-size towns in the Midwest and border South (with all the racial and class baggage that implies) and who had been processed by ten years of the Depression and four years of World War II. Whatever else brought them to Lakewood, it wasn't anxiety about the big city of Los Angeles, which never figured much in their lives. (My father was the only dad I knew who worked downtown, and he worked there for only a portion of his career with the Southern California Gas Company.)

Lakewood residents, 55 years later, are served by city staff members and a changing mix of contractors, including county agencies. That's the logic of the plan. And there are "phantom cities" still in Los Angeles County with a very small city staff and in which nearly all municipal services are provided by contractors (mostly a mix of county agencies and private sector vendors).

Maywood has enormous problems of leadership and governance. But the novelty of being a "100% contract city" isn't one of them.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Laurie Avocado. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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