SHERRY BEBITCH JEFFE, senior fellow, USC’s Price School of Public Policy.
This op-ed originally appeared at Prop Zero.
On the same day that the passing of Andy Griffith, the beloved TV sheriff of fictional Mayberry — that perfect epitome of small-town values — made front page news, the above-the-fold, page A1 headline in the Los Angeles Times read: “Office Seekers Recall Cudahy Intimidation.”
As part of an ongoing probe of alleged civic corruption in Cudahy, Calif. –a small, working-class community — the FBI uncovered evidence of election fraud. Three local officials had already been arrested on bribery charges.
Clearly, we don’t live in Mayberry.
Cudahy is only one example of a pattern of civic dysfunction that includes fiscal mismanagement and just plain corruption, which has long bedeviled smaller California cities, particularly in eastern LA County.
For example, roughly 10 years ago, the city of South Gate ousted its city treasurer and three council members who, as the Los Angeles Times described it, presided over “a city government teetering toward bankruptcy, awash in political corruption investigations, and riven by deep political divisions.”
In 2004, the former mayor of City of Carson went to jail “for serving as ringleader in a bribery scandal involving millions of dollars in municipal contracts.”
The tiny city of Vernon, reports California Watch, “has been buffeted by controversy in recent years. A longtime mayor was convicted of voter fraud. The Los Angeles Times found payments of more than $1 million to a former city administrator. Another high-paid administrator pleaded guilty to misusing public funds, and yet another pleaded guilty to corruption charges involving hiring his wife.”
Vallejo, outside of San Francisco, recently emerged from a 2008 bankruptcy filing. And in just the past few weeks, Stockton, San Bernardino and Mammoth Lakes, have faced municipal bankruptcy — all for different reasons, including bad judgment, irresponsible fiscal and policy decisions, the body blow of the current recession and ballooning public pension costs.
Mayberry never saw anything like that.
In today’s California, public employee unions play a prominent role in cities’ fiscal problems; labor’s pension demands have hamstrung rational budget reform. Unions also play the major role in local campaigns, and must share the blame — with voters and non-voters — for politicians who feel little need for accountability to the town’s citizens.
Come to think of it, Sherriff Andy never really had to worry about Mayberry’s fiscal health. There were maybe four public employees and Mayberry never had to face the real-life challenges of California’s quiet, agricultural “cow towns,” which were thrust into the whirlwind of a growing and diversifying state.
The media, too, plays a role in enabling inept or corrupt small-town government. Major metropolitan media outlets usually show up in local communities only when scandals hit the fan. And governmental coverage by small-town media tends to be thin or non-existent.
Will the Internet, investigative websites, YouTube, Patch and other social media change that? Not yet and not necessarily for the better; the Internet has fewer tests for truth and trust than good reporting and good reporters should have.
TV critics praised “The Andy Griffith Show” for its portrayal of the “culture of responsibility” that connoted the ideal America of the 1950s.
Today’s political culture is far different. The culture of responsibility, at least for the public good, has withered.
Immigrants settling in many small towns have fled countries where political participation and criticism are dangerous. That allows politicians virtually free reign.
Raleigh, N.C., erected a statue of Sheriff Andy and his son Opie. The inscription read, in part “…A simpler time, a sweeter place, a lesson, a laugh…”
Clearly, we don’t live in Mayberry.