Death by Secret Subcommittee

On a Wednesday afternoon, Town Hall was empty except for the seven members of the City Council-appointed ad hoc California Voting Rights Act Committee. And one guy in the chairs who had no plans for his afternoon. This guy was asked to remain quiet and did. 

Then, in a radical shake-up, newby Councilperson, Tess Albin-Smith, and Scott Menzies executed a pre-calculated power play in which the Ad Hoc Committee will cease to meet for an undetermined interval. Instead, Albin-Smith and Menzies, a subcommittee of two, will give their personal attention to the primary issue the seven-person committee was appointed to talk about.

The CVRA (California Voting Rights Act) has not received all that much attention in Fort Bragg, even though local application of the Act could have sunk the City financially. My readers know, and those few and rare savants who can decipher the baby pablum that issues out of the Advocate-News might know, that Fort Bragg got sued last year under a new state law that mandates the end of open general elections and imposes the substitution of neighborhood representatives. Fort Bragg's Hispanics, you see, are not fairly represented, an assertion that surprised ethnically harmonious Fort Bragg. 

Careful readers might know that districting, as it is called, stops general elections. They might know that hundreds of cities and school districts have lost the right to conduct traditional elections. Under state-mandated districting, you get to choose your council person not on the basis of who will be best, not on the basis of who can grapple with the substantial challenges the city faces, not on who will work hard enough, not who will express the people's interest as our elected representatives, instead, we will all pick our council people from a small group of neighbors who happen to live in our immediate, specific neighborhood. 

Goodbye to the City Council as we know it. Under districting, instead of the sometimes wrong, but inarguably hard-working City Council, you will get a City Council of neighborhood volunteers. That ends democracy in Fort Bragg as we have known it. It utterly ends adversarial politics. 

Hundreds of indignant, patriotic California cities have fought back in court against this irrational state intrusion and the aggressive undermining of local democracy. 

But every city and school board has lost. The state law is arbitrary, inflexible, and inescapable. 

Litigation costs for the many dozens of cities that have fought the CVRA have been in the millions. Every city that resisted has been saddled with massive litigation expenses and lost anyway. 

Fort Bragg had the improbable good fortune to be sued by a friendly local attorney who poked us into action and then backed down before things got too expensive. Clearly, he did it out of a sense of courtesy and regard for his town.

Jacob Patterson's CVRA lawsuit could have busted the city but Patterson was simply nice (for a lawyer) and the city ducked the bullet temporarily. 

The settlement with Patterson mandated the CVRA committee. and tasked them with a recommendation to the city council about how elections might look in the city given the CRVA mandate. Tess Albin-Smith bent the rules to become the committee chair.

Wednesday afternoon, under Albin-Smith's meticulously prepared direction, the committee was bullied into handing over primary committee responsibilities to a subcommittee comprised only of herself and Scott Menzies.

Jim Britt and Sharon Davis sheepishly voted themselves out of relevance. That vote meant that Albin-Smith and Scott Menzies will decide what kind of voting system the committee will recommend to the Council. 

Fort Bragg City Manager Tabatha Miller covered up the power grab by slamming down a gag order preventing the videotaping of the meeting. This unprecedented blackout was issued without consultation with the City Council. Ms. Miller kept the cameras off and the people of the city in the dark while Albin-Smith and Menzies took over the substantive work of the committee. (They had to kick me out of the room to do it. Whatever is happening they don’t want you to see it.)

The rules by which you elect your City Council and the School Board might not be at the top of your personal agenda, but everything else depends on it. The kind of City Council we have matters. The kind of school board we have matters. Elections and their form are the very substance of our democratic rights. All of it is being substantially altered. You don’t get a choice, it's coming from way over the hill. Welcome to the brave new world. 

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