Every child in America is taught that our Founding Fathers wisely enshrined checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution. The term checks and balances is credited to the French political philosopher Montesquieu and was used in the Federalist Papers in the lead up to the Constitution’s ratification. Federalism and the creation of three independent branches of the national government set up internal regulations designed to promote power sharing amongst government officials and agencies.
The principle of checks and balances is premised on the separation of powers model for governance. In the city-states of ancient Greece, Aristotle was the first to discuss the “mixed government” model. In the early years of the Roman Republic, with its Assemblies, Consuls and Senate, the system first operated on a mass scale. The justification for checks and balances was famously articulated by James Madison:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
As the above quote indicates, the compulsion towards tyranny is best restrained by systematic political self-interest.
While often discussed in reference to the federal government, the separation of powers model is rooted at the local level. As cities grow and the ranks of elites within them swell, the power structure comes under increased pressure to be more inclusive. The conflict is generally framed as a rising class coming up against an old guard. Because the framers of our government knew that such was inevitable in a growing nation, they provided us with this framework for inclusive democracy. As such, structural reform and growth go hand-in-hand.
With Orange County’s largest population, Anaheim is a rapidly growing city of 350,000. The problems the city faces at present are largely the result of imposing a misfitted governing structure. Today, significant areas of public policy are colonized by one or a number of special interests. The politics of the city are mired in conflict because policy making in these areas do not respond to public opinion. Whether this is a perception or otherwise is beside the point; there is a democratic disconnect that makes the city incoherent and not credible. Two issues in particular, public safety (policing) and economic policy, highlight the problem of power in Anaheim.
The Anaheim Police Department is incredibly isolated from the city’s electorate. Its attitude towards public criticism gives rise to a breeding ground for negligence and insubordination. This culture is costly to taxpayers and it starts at the top. The union’s contempt for the democratic process encourages the street officer’s contempt for citizens. APD is accountable only to a three vote majority on the city council. When it succeeds in lobbying, the responsibilty is spread amongst the different council members and their different votes. The public is forced to hold the police accountable through the politics of the council, but it takes a specailized lawyer to comprehend the politics of the council, which in any event can evade accountability. APD’s union, of course, spends thousands in every election cycle to maintain its monopoly of power over public safety in Anaheim.
Economic Policy is not monopolized by a single special interest but by a coalition of elite business interests loosely associated with the Anaheim resort area and its large venues. The money behind this group is active through the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and SOAR (Save Our Anaheim Resort). In doing so, a small mostly out-of-town minority dictates much of the agenda at City Hall. The selected resort interests use the city’s credit and general fund to upgrade different aspects of the resort district. Forgoing the risk mechanism (moral hazard) inherent in private financing, the public finance schemes have negative consequences for the local economy. Publicly financing the construction of luxury hotels, for example, would likely lead to the destruction of many small businesses within the motel industry. Despite the public’s wide-spread opposition to such schemes, the system does not respond and the resort interests maintains a pro-subsidy majority on the City Council.
In the coming months, I hope to discuss a number of possible solutions to Anaheim’s democratic deficit. Reform prospects include: district election, a division of legislative and executive authority, increasing the number of city representatives, and the creation of neighborhood planning commissions. At the last council meeting, Cynthia Ward discussed the challenges an individual faces when taking on local government. Her comment and this topic have led me to conclude that among all the problems faced by the city, the absence of political staff is paramount. The city staff is a bureaucracy that should operate to enforce the laws, not make them. Public policy must be in the hands of the City Council because it represents the people. However, the council members serve part-time and each, including the mayor, is limited to a single part-time aid. This makes it impossible to, for example, compare different local governments, review political theory in the Federalist Papers, and accordingly propose reforms.
In closing, the video below illustrates how little democracy has come to matter in Anaheim. Mayor Tait’s confrontation with an outside consultant hired by city staff shows how the public will is thwarted by undemocratic and un-transparent institutional players. If for some reason it does not show up below, you can find it here.