The Coastal Post - March 2000

Traffic, Sprawl, Reform: We Need A Higher Standard

By Julia Kendall

Do you know who your county supervisor is?

Or even what the county government does? While many of us want to "think globally and act locally," mediocre, old-style local and county government and politics limits this spirit to private behavior-car-pooling, buying organic food or green electricity. While the long-term trend in Washington and Sacramento has been to downsize central government and devolve power to the local level, many local and county governments remain unchanged. We have got to raise the bar on local politics if the exhortation to "act locally" is ever to have a chance.

I am running for county supervisors because I believe local politics is fresh for bold reform. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to penetrate the mediocrity of local politics, to get the public's attention.

Local public officials like my opponent for County Supervisor, incumbent Annette Rose, continue to be largely unknown to the voters, and win elections by being politically correct rather than demonstrating creativity or effectiveness. If you look at her campaign materials, she takes credit for saving thousands of acres of open space, but if you look at her voting record and her list of campaign contributors, she is clearly friendly with developers, and actively supports new subdivisions.

While most people now agree that building community and neighborhoods is the key to many problems facing American democracy and culture, public discourse around local issues remains generally unchanged-mediocre and blurry. The subdivisions continue to get built, the traffic gets worse and politicians continue to play the lip service game. Meanwhile, the drift of hugely important local issues like suburban sprawl, traffic congestion and public health continue to erode the quality of life.

There is an emerging movement toward making local and regional governments more substantial. Perhaps the first major progressive recognition of the importance of county government came in 1992 when the Rio Summit on global warming fingered local and county governments as critical to actually cutting pollution levels. Since then, many progressive agendas, whether for transportation, land use, crime or education, are taking a new look at regionalism.


County governments nationwide are implementing ambitious transportation plans to reduce congestion and pollution while making neighborhoods more bicycle and walk friendly. Denver has created a regional integrated public transit system, and the Boston Metropolitan area's transit authority has banned outright the purchase of diesel buses, a major pollutant. Napa's school district has made a similar move. Marin is behind the curve. With the major traffic problems we have here both on 101 and at Tam Junction, Marin county should take a lead in efforts to reduce traffic congestion. Instead it is gridlocked, with 10 years of studies and plans, but no end in sight.

Fighting Suburban Sprawl

A major reason for Marin's transportation gridlock is that Marin has no firm policy on sprawl. While every member of the Board of Supervisors will brag about having a parcel of land here and there, the general drift today favors compromise with developers. The Board of Supervisor is currently attempting to pass the buck by allowing a new annexation of county farmlands by San Rafael, dodging accountability for the subdivisions of 2100 houses-and 4000 more cars on 101 that will result. Novato's development at Blackpoint resulted in the bulldozing of 7,000 coastal live oak trees and the destruction of wetlands for 53 estates and a golf course. These are just examples.

As long as developers can lobby their way to permits for new subdivisions, the only option for environmentalists fighting Los Angelesization will remain to oppose highway widenings. That is why a firm county policy against sprawl is so critical to solving traffic congestion. Many Bay area communities are trying to put a stop to strip malls and endless subdivisions. The next area targeted by developers here is the Marin Baylands, which the Board of Supervisors should fight to protect. Marin county should get with it and 1) stop the rezoning of wild and farmlands which causes land speculation, 2) oppose city annexations of county land like San Rafael's Silveira Ranch and St. Vincent's, which lead to sprawl, and 3) seek readily available funds to protect open space. Only then can we move on with a truly sustainable traffic reduction initiative.


In Massachusetts, Barnstable County's government has led 10 Cape Cod towns to form county-wide cooperative of all willing citizens and businesses to purchase their electricity, which is the largest cause of global warming. The county initiative will enable communities to dramatically expand conservation and green power development. While California law forbids "Community Choice," 10 California cities and counties have already asked the state legislature to allow it here. San Francisco has taken a leading role, and Marin County should get with it.

Campaign Finance Reform

Santa Clara county has the best campaign finance laws in the state. Why not Marin? If we wait for state or federal governments to act, we are fooling ourselves. U.S. courts have already struck down state laws that limit campaign spending, and while Congress talks about campaign finance reform, it has done nothing. Local reform is a better strategy.

These are just examples to show some city and county governments thinking globally and acting locally. Culver City has a municipal credit card whose interest proceeds go to reopening and maintaining a public pool. Berkeley's school district has phased out frozen junk food in favor of fresh organic school lunches. San Francisco is developing a health insurance cooperative for residents. The list goes on.

If we think globally and act locally, there is a lot that county government can do, both in terms of finding real solutions to global warming, suburban sprawl, traffic congestion and public health, and in terms of getting more citizens involved in democracy. So some might doubt whether local government can clean up its act, but it is the best chance we've got. It is, in this sense, its own case, its own "issue." We need a higher standard.

Please vote on March 7.

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