By Roz Rogoff
Who is represented here?Uploaded: Feb 17, 2011
In a representative government like ours elected officials are supposed to represent their constituents, both the people who voted for them and the people who voted for someone else.
Staff on the other hand represents the agency they work for. That's only reasonable since that's who hired them to do a job and their goal is or should be to make the agency run smoothly in fulfilling its mission.
The Directors or Councilmembers elected to oversee the agency are supposed to be the connection between the voters and the staff. They are supposed to direct staff to do what is best for the community and not what is best or easiest for staff.
What often happens is a kind of "Stockholm Syndrome," where the elected officials start taking on the thinking of staff. They become captive to what staff tells them to do and lose touch with the voters and residents they are supposed to represent.
This isn't a condition present only in San Ramon. Carlos Soria, Toyota Project Manager, told planning commissioners this week, "In my experience if staff doesn't recommend something, it doesn't get enough votes to pass." Soria travels all over the country for Toyota, so he should know.
While it is good to listen to staff, because they have the experience and expertise to know how to get things done and which things can be successful, elected representatives should also listen to residents and balance out what they want compared to what staff is telling them.
If things are running smoothly and residents are complaisant about their community, they won't pay much attention to what the Directors or Councilmembers are doing. It's only when something happens that affects them personally that they show up at Council meetings to complain about it.
Often the complaints affect one neighborhood or a few residents or businesses. So the attitude of the Council is these are NIMBYs (Not in my backyard). Sometimes NIMBYs are selfish whiners, but other times they have a legitimate case.
Six years ago Chevron wanted to build a co-generation plant next to Ascot Drive. I don't live near there, but I went to the Planning Commission meeting to protest putting the power plant next to a residential neighborhood. I may have been the only person not from that neighborhood to oppose it.
Planning Commissioner Bob Patrino asked why I, a logical person, would oppose a cogeneration plant when they have an excellent safety record. I said, "Because it is wrong to put it next to a residential neighborhood." Sometimes things may not be problematic in themselves, but they are still wrong for the community.
The planning commissioners listened to all of the neighbors and to the Chevron representatives, and voted to deny the permit to put the cogeneration plant in that location. They told Chevron it would be OK to put it on the other side of their property away from the residential neighborhood. Chevron said it would cost more to move it to the other location (poor Chevron). As far as I know Chevron never built the cogeneration plant on their property.
It's not easy to determine when something is necessary versus something that shouldn't be allowed. The City can't react to every complaint from everyone, but they should be open to listening to everyone even when they disagree with that person's opinion or perception of what the City is trying to do.
Often the people making the most noise are against whatever is planned, and the "silent majority," either wants it or has no objections to it. That's why it is important for representatives to hear from both sides.
When the only side the Council hears is from staff, they are inclined to do what staff tells them. If the only side they hear is from individuals or groups with a political agenda, they might react defensively and not take their positions seriously.
So our representatives need to hear from all sides, including yours and mine. Yes, elected officials are supposed to represent the citizens, but citizens must let their representatives know how you want to be represented, or they will represent whoever shows up.