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By Lois Henry
Back when this newsroom was full of rowdies who delighted in tweaking management's nose, we used to have an award for someone who stood on "principle" to the point of nearly getting fired: The Burning Monk. (You youngsters can Google it to see what I'm talking about.)
Those crazy days, and those reporters, are (mostly) long gone, but I feel compelled to resurrect the Burning Monk Award and bestow it upon none other than Bakersfield City Councilman Terry Maxwell.
Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.
Maxwell has steadfastly argued -- and voted -- against the wishes of a majority of his constituents on one particular issue. Given that these constituents tend to be fairly affluent, well-connected and avid voters, Maxwell's stance will likely be to his own detriment.
So, I had to ask, why?
"I could have done the politically expedient thing" and voted to support the wishes of the majority, Maxwell told me. "But that's not what I'm here for. I'm not here to do what I think is wrong. I'm here to do what I think is right."
And it's not right, to Maxwell's thinking, to relax a requirement issued by the council more than a year ago about building cul de sacs for residents who live on the south side of 24th Street, which state and local officials want to widen to six lanes, pending environmental approval.
The requirement was that if 100 percent of property owners between 24th and 22nd on each of the so-called "tree streets" wanted cul de sacs, the city would build them. Heading east to west that included A, Cedar, Pine, Spruce, Myrtle and Beech streets.
Some of the affected streets couldn't get the 100 percent buy-in -- in one case because one resident withdrew his support at the last minute. But we'll come back to that.
So, residents asked the council to relax the 100 percent part of the requirement to 75 percent. It was clear, over the course of two meetings, that the other six members of the council felt that was fair.
Not Maxwell. And in last week's meeting he, well, he went off about it.
He cited the Federalist papers and James Madison, and warned that reducing the requirement to 75 percent would lead to a "tyranny of the majority."
And, he predicted, reducing the 100 percent requirement would tie future councils' hands on street vacation cases. People's property rights would be trampled by the powerful, he said.
"Make no mistake, that's the road we're going down."
OK, let's check the drama and look at the actual resolution passed by the council last week.
It states that if 75 percent of property owners favor the cul de sacs the council MAY consider approving cul de sacs. It doesn't lock anyone into anything. It gives residents access to plead their case. Nothing more.
Councilmember Jacquie Sullivan was succinctly eloquent when she refuted Maxwell's dire predictions, saying the council always has a right to look at requests on a case-by-case basis and to react as circumstances dictate.
Maxwell was not dissuaded.
He voted against the resolution. Then he voted against approving cul de sacs on Spruce and A streets, which both had 75 percent and more support for the cul de sacs. The rest of the council voted yes on all three issues.
Maxwell is on record as opposing the 24th Street widening project. But he said his opposition to relaxing the cul de sac requirement had nothing to do with his opposition to the 24th Street widening.
It was about principle, he said. People were told the rules, they accepted them and when they didn't get what they wanted, they decided to change the rules.
He doesn't just represent the 90 percent of people who want the cul de sacs, he said. He also represents the one person who doesn't want them. That person has property rights that must be upheld, he said.
"It's ironic that I was the only one (on the council) who recognized that," he said. "I realize I run the risk of paying a political price but I'm also a very principled person."
But it's also ironic that Maxwell castigated his fellow council members for changing the rules when the very property owner he was defending pulled a last-minute switch and started this whole mess.
Rosco Rolnick, who owns a home on Spruce Street but doesn't live there, had initially signed the petition in favor of the cul de sacs back in 2012. His name stayed on that petition for more than a year. Then in late December, he sent a letter to the city asking that his name be withdrawn.
Most of the other tree streets south of 24th have gotten the property owner buy-in needed for cul de sacs. So, those will be blocked off in the near future.
Had the council done what Maxwell wanted and rigidly stuck by its original 100 percent requirement, that would have meant a torrent of cars pouring onto Spruce Street, the only unblocked street.
All because one guy changed his mind.
That strikes me as the tyranny of the minority.
It will be interesting to watch how Maxwell deals the majority of constituents in his "sandbox," as he calls Ward 2, going forward.
In the meantime, I'll have his Burning Monk Award waiting on my desk.
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail email@example.com