By Sunday Forum
When Kern County grand jurors recommended last month that tiny Maricopa disincorporate -- dissolve its city government and turn over public service responsibilities to the county and state -- it was one of many similar calls heard recently around the state.
Blame the persistent recession, fiscal incompetency, political corruption or the vagaries of a state budget. But taxpayers in more and more cities are wondering if their money should be spent to support struggling local government agencies.
Disincorporation: Bakersfield ended soon after it began
Disincorporation, which is the decision of citizens to "dissolve" their city government, is a rare occurrence. The Californian reported last month that a 2010 report published in the Public Law Journal cited only 17 cities that have disincorporated in California's history, and only two since 1963.
Bakersfield is one of those 17 cities.
Local historian Gilbert Gia traced Bakersfield's on-again-off-again start in his recent article, "Marshal Alex Mills and Bakersfield's Disincorporation, 1876." The full text of the article can be found on Gia's website, www.gilbertgia.com.
Gia noted that Kern County's population in the 1870s was 2,900, with the county seat located in the mountain mining town of Havilah. But as mining declined and people settled on the valley floor, Bakersfield by 1872 had become a commercial hub. Two years later, the county's administrative offices moved to Bakersfield as well.
A critical juncture for Bakersfield came in 1873, when "residents rebelled against the noise, vice, garbage dumping, careless fires, and indiscriminate horse racing in the town's streets," Gia wrote. In response, they voted that year to incorporate Bakersfield as a city. Ordinances to abate nuisances and collect taxes for a fire department and city marshal followed.
Kentuckian Alexander Mills, who had lost a leg in the Civil War, was hired as the city marshal. A historian 40 years later described Mills as "an old man by the time he became marshal ... (but he was) a handy man with a gun, and not lacking in initiative and resource when the mood moved him."
Mills' reputation for being cantankerous and heavy-handed was soon realized. His run-in with the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad is cited as an example of his clout.
A dispute between the railroad and the fledgling city resulted in Southern Pacific bypassing Bakersfield in 1874 to establish its station two miles to the east, in a community called Sumner, which eventually became east Bakersfield.
The bad blood between Southern Pacific and Bakersfield was flowing when a few months later the city's marshal was directed to serve papers relating to an "attachment lawsuit" involving the railroad. Mills chained a log to the rails, sat down on the tie with his rifle in his hands, and announced he had "attached" the track, roadbed and right-of-way. He vowed not to leave until the judgment was satisfied. Southern Pacific settled.
And while that bit of bravado reportedly pleased some city fathers, Mills' other acts drew concerns and complaints. Historian Richard Bailey wrote that Mills "would enter a business and, if money (that was) due to the town was not handed over immediately, he would shoot holes in the floor around the proprietor's feet."
City officials wanted to fire Mills, but feared the lawman would retaliate. A scheme was devised to disincorporate Bakersfield to get rid of Mills. Likely there were other reasons for dissolving the city as well. Gia reported that insufficient taxes were being collected to support public services.
"Businessmen who paid them were few, and those who complained said they were not getting services. The town's streets and irrigation ditches were also neglected. Early in 1875, a local newspaper proclaimed that the town's government was a miserable failure, and about then Mills decided not to stay on," Gia wrote. By 1876, the city of Bakersfield ceased to exist, with three-fourths of voters agreeing to disincorporate. For 22 years, a citzens' council ran things.
A spurt of growth caused by oil discoveries in the late 1890s brought an economic boom to Bakersfield, which reincorporated as a city in 1898. Thomas A. Baker, the son of Bakersfield's founder, became the city's marshal.
-- Dianne Hardisty
The grand jury's recommendation followed two earlier scathing reports that criticized Maricopa's arrangement with a private towing company. Some claimed the agreement established a speed trap that targeted Hispanics and was intended to generate cash to pay for city government services. In a second report, grand jurors lashed out at the alleged unprofessional conduct of the city's police department.
The report calling for Maricopa to disincorporate cited numerous examples of the city's alleged mishandling of funds, mounting debt, lack of recordkeeping and unauthorized actions by city staff.
"The habitual city practice of 'borrowing' from designated purpose funds to meet ordinary city expenses exacerbates the already precarious state of the city's finances and imperils the chances of receiving needed grants," wrote grand jurors in concluding the city, which has a population of only 1,154, should cease to exist. "As distasteful as the idea may be to some citizens of Maricopa, the city no longer has the resources to maintain the status and duties of an incorporated city."
The disincorporation of Maricopa would require a vote of its citizens. But eliminating the city will not eliminate its debts, which grand jurors estimate to be $200,000. Likely the debt will become a tax lien against properties within the city.
Maricopa City Council members, including S. Cynthia Tonkin, have responded with promises to solve Maricopa's financial and administrative problems.
"I believe disincorporation is unacceptable by the people who own or rent property in Maricopa," Tonkin wrote in a letter to The Californian. She referred to the likely resistance of property owners to assume the city's debt.
But will Maricopa have the choice to keep on trucking -- borrowing, misspending and bending the law? Is there an end of the road for all the Maricopas that are cropping up throughout California and in other states?
Assembly Speaker John Perez believes it is the end of the road for Vernon -- a tiny city in Los Angeles County, where only 96 people live, mostly in city-owned rentals. Since the city's founding in 1905, its purpose has been to serve as an oasis for warehouses and factories. It now boasts of having about 1,800 businesses that employ more than 50,000 workers.
Assemblyman Perez, who represents the area, contends Vernon's city government also can boast of having an "unprecedented pattern of corruption," including city council members and their appointed administrators being paid excessive salaries and enjoying outrageous perks. At one time, Vernon's city administrator was California's highest paid government officer, earning $911,000 in his final year in office.
Perez pushed through the Assembly a bill that would disincorporate Vernon. It is opposed by both labor and business groups, who predict transferring government powers to county and state regulatory agencies would ruin Vernon's business-friendly climate and chase companies and jobs out of the city. Kern County Assemblywoman Shannon Grove voted against Perez's bill, telling the Los Angeles Times, "We cannot afford to continue an assault on private business."
Perez's unprecedented move to have the state step in and dissolve a city must be passed by the Senate and signed by the governor before it can become law. But just the threat of disincorporation has resulted in self-imposed reforms that have slashed Vernon city salaries, set term limits on council posts and imposed anti-corruption measures.
Because of economic reasons, cities such as Half Moon Bay, Rio Vista, Isleton and Vallejo recently have toyed with the idea of dissolving their governments to dump pension and public salary obligations.
And deep in the pages of Senate Bill 89, a "trailer bill" signed last week by Gov. Brown to help implement the "cuts heavy" state budget, is a time bomb for even more California cities that are barely hanging on financially.
The "time bomb" redirects $130 million in vehicle-license fee money that goes to cities. Some of that money now will be distributed through state grants to local law enforcement. New cities, such as the ones formed during the housing boom, receive extra license-fee money to get established. Several of these new cities now are contending that redirecting vehicle-license fee money will be their death knell.
Republican lawmakers who represent new Southern California cities wrote to Gov. Brown, pleading for the funds to be restored. Their pleas came at the same time Republican legislative leaders were boasting about their success at rolling back taxes, including the vehicle-license fee, and fighting other tax proposals to close the state's budget hole.
Brown responded that Republicans forced the redirection of vehicle-license fee money by their refusal to let state voters consider extending higher taxes on income, sales and vehicles.
"Some of these Republicans think they can have their cake and eat it too. Well, they can't," Brown told the newspaper in Riverside County, where four new cities face losing millions of dollars. "When you don't have money, there are real-world consequences."
Maricopa, like those other financially strapped cities, is facing real-world consequences too. It's all well and good for people to want the "local control" they believe an incorporated city can provide.
But Kern County has 11 incorporated cities, more than 40 separate school districts and many more "special districts." That's a lot of local control. That's a lot of administrative salaries and perks for elected and appointed officials.
Are people willing to pay for all that "local control"? Are they willing to exercise their own control over the people they hire and elect to competently and legally operate their incorporated cities, school districts and special districts?
Dianne Hardisty is The Californian's former editorial page editor. She is on the board of the Maddy Institute, a nonpartisan political think tank at Fresno State. For more about the Maddy Institute, go to www.maddyinstitute.org.