Community Columns

Devious people want to deprive taxpayers of their watchdog

Road repair, like this one, are proceeding after passage of Measure L.
Road repair, like this one, are proceeding after passage of Measure L. The Modesto Bee

Let’s just imagine you are a member of a taxpayer’s watchdog group and you are being lobbied by dozens of people and groups to endorse a sales tax increase to pay for street improvements. You know your streets are in abysmal condition, they need repair, your city management refuses to spend your money on streets, and everyone is in despair over lack of repair.

Imagine that an idea is brought to you that would create a citizens’ oversight commission to review and report on how the new sales tax revenues, if passed, would be spent. Imagine you are asked to help draft such a commission and give the city council an ultimatum: create the commission, or the taxpayers group would oppose the tax and voters would probably reject it.

Imagine you agree, the resolution is written, presented to the council and passed 7-0.

Next, imagine the new tax is passed by the voters, the commission is created by a divided council and begins to function.

But, during the very first meeting, two council people complain the commission is violating its mandate. Despite the fact it has seen no projects and made no recommendations, the criticism continues, is brought up many times in council meetings, and eventually, the council acts to terminate the commission and disband it.

Imagine that despite the fact that every criticism voiced by three of the seven council people is false, the council considers repeal of the commission. During that discussion, many commissioners, many citizens and several city staff members testified that none of the criticism is true. After almost four hours of arguing, the council decides to suspend the commission’s activities until a new committee can do oversight on the oversight commission.

You do not have to imagine this at all. It actually happened.

A minority of devious council people pretended to create an oversight commission to examine how the council was spending huge new revenues on streets. To understand, consider the fact that in the year prior to passing the new tax, the city spent less than $600,000 in its street “maintenance effort”. The new tax is bringing in over $12 million or about 20 times the previous expenditures.

But the first time they got to terminate the oversight commission, this minority fought to do so.

Fairer and more responsible council people appeared to prevent that, but the simple fact is that the operation of the Citizens Oversight Commission on Measure L has been suspended, and a new committee will be formed to prevent it from functioning. Even reading the words “oversight of the oversight commission” should make your blood boil.

It appears a perfect bait-and-switch sham has successfully prevented Modesto taxpayers from having any input or receiving any information on how this huge pot of their money is being spent. This fits well with a council minority who view taxpayers with contempt.

We have neither democracy nor representation without information. A secret government is a tyrannical government.

So please put yourself in the shoes of an oversight commissioner. What would you contemplate? Do the words of the bard who sang the following come to mind?

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em;

Know when to fold ‘em;

Know when to walk away,

And know when to run.

Dave Thomas is chairman of the Measure L Citizens’ Oversight Commission and member of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association.