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Digging a Grave for California Cities

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Right This Way
Right This Way  | Courtesy National Library of Australia

The mayors of Jurupa Valley, Menifee, Wildomar, and Eastvale think a Los Angeles Times editorial went too far by telling them "We can't afford you." The Times, they said, had failed to understand the depth of the Legislature's bad faith in clawing back police funding it had earlier promised.

And not just those four new cities in Riverside County lose, but all cities.

It would be helpful to explain how this shell game was worked -- the swap of municipal revenue to backfill money the state either spent or gave away and the "dead of night" committee vote that left cities no chance to be heard. I'd like to give a clear account of the process, but I can't. The duplicity goes back decades.

No one in Sacramento wants to untangle the chain of accounting maneuvers that leaves these cities in fiscal ruin. Jurupa Valley may actually be forced to disincorporate.

In this mine shaft, Jurupa Valley, Menifee, Wildomar, and Eastvale are the canaries whose crippling or demise means the further loss of fiscal independence for cities, the end of popular movements to create new city governments, and the acceleration of a long running effort to "amalgamate" California's cities into regional governments directed from Sacramento.

I'm not sure if the Times, in lamenting that the state is in trouble, has fully bought into the broader scheme of looting cities and then, because of their poor fiscal condition, forcing them one day to consolidate "for their own good" (as Rick Cole, the city manager of Ventura, recently suggested).

"Not to be flip," the Times wrote of the fiscal strangulation of cities, "but that's the way it goes."

Amalgamation was the way it successfully went in the early 1990s in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand (if by "successful" you mean the consolidation of all authority under the national government). In California, Willie Brown and Bob Hertzberg -- both former Assembly Speakers -- have been talking about amalgamation for years, and it remains a widely discussed alternative to the messy democracy that results from having many local governments. It's an alternative that appeals to policy wonks on the left and big political contributors on the right and most termed-out legislators. (Do you find it revealing, as I do, that so many of the termed out now turn up as city council candidates in Los Angeles and other big cities?)

The decay of local autonomy and the rise of regionalized government make sense if you want to concentrate political influence, if you want to manage the number of skeptics you need to grease with campaign money, if you want to give the state's hereditary political caste another round of seats from which to assemble power and dispense patronage, if you want to distance residents from the places in which their lives are mostly led, if you think that's the way it ought to go in California.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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