Three Months of Observations – Lessons Learned

Good day, dear readers! I’m W. Bruce Lee, President of the Sacramento Taxpayers Association (SacTax) which is responsible for all of Sacramento County. My responsibility is to represent you, the taxpayers. You may have read earlier OpEds regarding the November 2020 sales tax increase ballot Measure M in Citrus Heights – which was wisely defeated by the voters in the recent election. My purpose in writing today is not to focus on “M”, but on the lessons learned and observations gleaned from our three month intensive effort to defeat M. There are things which I believe the voters need to no.

Now Measure M was a BAD TAX proposal and you should have clearly voted “NO” on it. Simply put, the bad tax formula is:

No Accountability + No Sunset (never ending) + No Guarantee on how spent = BAD TAX

Plus to compound the problem, a sales tax is the most regressive of taxes which disproportionately hurts the lower income, fixed income, disadvantaged, and elderly. This is precisely why the NAACP opposed Measure M. And, this tax was proposed during the middle of a pandemic/economic crisis when thousands were unemployed or underemployed, and local, small businesses are shutting down – many to not reopen. How silly was that?

And, in this case, the City of Citrus Heights did not need the money as they only had a two-year problem until six million will come in annually from property taxes; plus they can manage their own expenses when things are lean, just like every family must do. That may not be their first choice, but they can do it.

However, that being said and the stage set, let me please share the insights I have learned about the governance of Citrus Heights over the past three months while working on Measure M. I have served as a local elected for years; teach governance at the university level; worked for years in governance at the state and national levels; and prior to Covid-19 made 4-5 tours annually coaching and teaching on governance in many parts of the world. I say this ONLY to indicate that I have some knowledge base on this subject.

Here are some general and specific observations which you may find useful:

1) Citizens, you must take responsibility and ownership of your governments – local, state, etc. They are not some vague entity about which we speak in vague terms. The government is YOU. It is US. However, while citizens have delegated responsibility to government, many have abdicated responsibility for the community and just look at government as something to sneer at. Our government is no better than you or US together.

2) Council members in Citrus Heights appear to stay in office way too long. Now, institutional history is very valuable, but there is also a balance. When serving too long, Council members entrench their power base, and they get too close to staff where the council serves as a rubber stamp. And, they do not ask the hard, analytical questions. The “form or look” of governance replaces the “substance” of governance.

3) In my experience, not all elected officials are intelligent, though many are. Some are very likeable, but still not the “sharpest tool in the shed.” And, for all too many electeds, much of their motivation subtle revolves around ego. They like being called the Honorable this or that. We tend to defer to and treat electeds way too nicely, whereas they are simply our employees. Some electeds are just figureheads, only in the office as a stepping stone to greater political power – I find that particularly distasteful. (I remember one newly elected councilmember who a week after election was telling me his grand plans of who to suck up to so that he’d be reelected in four years. I told him, “Just focus on doing your JOB. And if you do a good JOB, then maybe you’ll be reelected.” Which points out, people often get into office for all of the wrong reasons. It’s not a public service, but an ego-satisfaction or career.

4) People like power and power corrupts. Then, the governance process becomes political, petty, and self-serving. You don’t provide honest, logical answers, but you “spin” things to get what you want.

Measure M was spun as 1 cent, not 1 percent. Even the ballot language was spun like a sales job. If it was honest, it would simply say, “A one percent sales tax with no sunset date projected to raise $12 million a year which may be spent in any way the current or future city councils may choose.” Clear, simple, and to the point. Of course, the current council cannot mandate how the money will be spent a couple of years down the road, unless the measure puts it into writing for the voters.

The city said they spent two years creating this tax proposal. Well, if they spent two years talking about this specific tax (and not broad priorities), then either they are terrible time managers or liars, because in a period of a 2-3 weeks in late July/early August, they rushed this tax literally at the last moment onto the ballot.

5) City salaries are massive. The City Manager compensation package was $411,610 in 2019 per www.publicpay.ca.gov of the State Controller. The President is paid $400,000 and has a lot more responsibility. The challenge with BIG compensation is that you begin to believe you deserve it, and the Manager will be up for more raises. Whereas, in reality, many people could do that job just as well for $200,000 or less. You can see the salaries for yourself at https://VoteNoOnM.org/No-Spin-Facts-About-M . Plus, watch the video of the City Manager making his August 2016 “No Debt” promise – a promise now long broken.

6) When power is consolidated, governance becomes petty … and people are afraid of their city. So many people have told me, “Don’t use my name, because if the city finds out I opposed M, there will be repercussions or social shunning.”

7) And when power is consolidated, self-serving dealings happen. Many vendors to the city (which are based outside of the city) poured thousands of dollars into the Yes on M in a “pay to play” program. Stone’s Casino donated $10,000! And amazingly, in the same month the “sunset” clause in their contract with the city since 1997 was eliminated completely. And, the “pay to play” plan worked, as Pro-M has raised around $50,000 compared to the few thousand raised by “No on M” from citizen donations and hundreds of volunteer hours.

“The Sanctuary” cannabis dispensary in Sacramento (based in New Hampshire) made three donations to the “Yes on M” and appears to want to open shop in Citrus Heights. Donations have come from Anaheim (a gaming company), Oakland, and many other cities outside of Citrus Heights.

In contrast, I was not even allowed to speak at the August 31st Chamber of Commerce debate about “M”, because I did not live in the city (though my responsibility covers the whole county). The great lion’s share of pro-M funding came from vendors OUTSIDE of the city. But, I guess, – different rules for different sides.

Let me also observe how the Chamber and the City have a mutually symbiotic (self-serving) financial relationship. Rather than representing the business interests of their hundreds of small business members, the Chamber was the tool of the City. Thousands of City dollars go to the Chamber every year, as well as payments to Chamber leaders for business services. Bill Van Duker, an outspoken proponent of M and owner of All Star Printing, received $2,801 from Pro M for services, and as of October 1, he received $15,742 from the City. Ray Riehle, Government Issues and PAC Chair for the Chamber, received $2,999 from the city as of October 1 (four times more than last year); and the Chamber received $15,396 from the city as of October 1 (five times more than last year).

And the Chamber’s Executive Director, Diane Ebbit-Riehle, started the “YES on M PAC” on August 10th, three days before the City gave final approval to the measure. Fascinating! When this was highlighted weeks later, the PAC changed treasurers to Porsche Middleton.

Of course, Diane is the wife of Ray Riehle, and Ray was the debate moderator for the Chamber debate in which I was not allowed to participate because I do not live in Citrus Heights. (And, of interesting note, Diane and Ray do not live in Citrus Heights either – they only work there, just as I do.) Chamber members – you may want to check out this whole relationship between the Chamber and the City.

And, it was Diane, who at the debate on “M” for the Auburn Boulevard Business Association on October 6th commented, that if residents cannot afford to pay the new sales tax on a pair of shoes, that they can just go shop at Goodwill. (Wow, how arrogant and unconcerned about the disadvantaged.)

At the same meeting, the operating manager of Riebes Auto Parts, Jeff Hove, explained that a one percent tax increase will cost him $48,000 a year – a cost which he cannot pass onto customers or absorb himself, because he is competing with national auto part companies which can easily absorb this cost into their national system. That’s bad news.

8) Plus the city used public dollars to sell Measure M to the voters via public mailers and the like. Even the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association (HJTA) on October 1st stepped in to tell the city to cease using public funds to advocate for Measure M, which is unlawful. HJTA just won $1.35 million from the County of Los Angeles for doing the same thing.

9) And worst of all, when you consolidate power, you continue to protect your power. On October 8, 2020 the city changed a 17 year policy where any two council members could put an item on the agenda for discussion to now it must be a majority (or three of the five council members). This change was done in anticipation that Tim Schaefer would be added to the City Council on November 3, as he was, so that he and reelected Council Member Bret Daniels could not place items on the agenda for discussion. This change insures that the minority will never even have the chance to discuss an item which the majority opposes.

The voters made a good choice in the November election to send Measure M down in flames. However, the ongoing battle for good governance is not over. Continued diligence is necessary. Let me say, beware Citrus Heights citizens. Inside the white washed tomb, some things stink within the city. And, if you continue to give them more power and more money, and do not take ownership of your government, the stink will continue to grow. SacTax stands ready to continue to work with you in the months and years ahead. Thank you for the privilege of serving you.

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