A mainstay of the political culture in the United States is that we believe in the idea of self-government. That is, we associate democracy with its literal definition, “rule by the people.”
Since the founding of the country, we have believed dearly that local governments are at the heart of American democracy. We continue to hold onto the philosophy that the government better serves people locally. When elected leaders frequently interact with the community, they become more familiar with local realities and demands. Therefore, locally, elected officials have the best shot at representing community needs accurately. This idea of a civic republic doesn’t only sound appealing; practitioners have long promoted local governments as agents of accountability and a well-functioning democracy.
In line with the tradition of self-rule, we must applaud efforts like Lamont-Weedpatch for a new high school. I would even argue we need to go further and demand incorporation for many San Joaquin Valley communities.
According to Kern County’s most recent annual budget, more than 34 percent of the population lives in unincorporated areas. For many of us on the outskirts of Bakersfield, we must turn to the county or Kern High School District leaders to represent our needs. Given the county’s vast geographical span, and not to mention significant demographic differences from one zip code to the next, this institutional design is failing.
If you take a drive through Hilltop/Fuller Acres and Lamont, you will quickly realize that relying on the county government is not meeting demands. I do not mean to knock down the great work done by advocates in these communities. Their work is outstanding and recognized. I am also not suggesting every unincorporated area should create a unique school district or local government. Instead, my gripe is that distinct census-designated places, like Lamont, should have institutionalized channels to voice concerns if the community so chooses to. Conglomerate-like governments with inaccessible power brokers do not cut it.
The freedom for self-government is especially crucial in San Joaquin Valley, where agriculture and oil are dominant. These industries provide some of the most dangerous and in the case of farm work, underpaid jobs. In a 2013 report, Policy Link mapped all the unincorporated communities in the valley and found that many are not only overlooked by their county leaders, but also by the U.S. Census. We should all be alarmed by this erasure because this harms California’s representation in Washington, D.C., including federal funding the state is eligible to receive.
According to Policy Link’s report, 65 percent of the population living in unincorporated communities were people of color. Unlike the topic of bedroom communities, recently brought up in a Fresno Bee opinion piece, that sprout to “sell a lifestyle,” incorporation in these underserved communities is political and tied to survival. Our unincorporated and incorporated communities alike continue to fight for basic services like clean drinkable water, parks and air quality.
In most parts of the country, county governments have more or less stepped away from providing services as these responsibilities have shifted to cities and special districts. In California, however, counties continue to accumulate a tremendous amount of power. The number of cities in the state remains small— 484 to be exact with Jurupa Valley standing with the most recent incorporation in 2011.
Let’s compare this to Texas, which has approximately 1,216 incorporated cities, or the 62 cities in the small state of New York. California has made the path to incorporation a daunting process, and it is time to rethink this strategy to create more channels for local control. Self-rule means elected officials develop policies and budget priorities with the needs in mind of the communities they serve.
We must demand more from our democracy at home. Incorporation or creation of more municipal districts is not the be-all and end-all. Democracy is messy with conflictual processes that require more than what it gives sometimes. Inequality and daily life barriers to participation in our democratic processes continue to be challenging. Restoring the idea of self-government can help us regain our footing in our imperfect democracy. Let’s give ourselves a chance and “throw the rascals out” when they fail to serve.
Jennifer Martinez is a public policy doctoral candidate studying democratic institutions and civic participation.