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  A Case of Small Town Politics
by Steven D. Laib, J.D. M.S.
16 November 2002

When people believe they have a say in things that count, then they participate. In a town as small as Castro Valley, California, the people participated in the last local election because they knew they could make a difference.

With all of the sound and fury of the mid term elections in 2002 going on, the somewhat sleepy town of Castro Valley, California had a major fish on the fire – Incorporation appearing on the ballot as “Measure Q.”. Castro Valley is a small but growing unincorporated township about ten minutes south and east of Oakland. It has some of the best schools in the county, more than its share of churches (if there is such a thing) and is situated near all of the highway arteries connecting major bay area communities as well as the main route to Interstate 5 which connects Sacramento and Los Angeles.

After living here for about seven years it has become home to me, although there was always something homey about it, even when I first visited the residence of a classmate at C.S.U., Hayward who lived there. Perhaps it is the advantage of not having a city government to get in the way of things. Perhaps it is that the people here seem to be genuinely friendly; even the postal clerks. Certainly the huge number of homes with Christmas lights made me feel much more welcome than I Berkeley did when I went to visit the old family home there and found almost nothing to make the holiday season look special.

Some people in Castro Valley have been concerned for years over the lack of city government. It is not that we really miss it, unless we go looking. County government provides police and fire protection. The California Highway Patrol looks out for traffic violations when the Deputy Sheriffs are too busy. Our public schools have their own district; utilities are taken care of. So what do we really need a city for?

I wasn’t sure about this, and neither were a lot of other people. There was one major objection the proponents of incorporation had. They wanted to “keep our tax dollars here.” As if the taxes generated by this small area were being taken away by big government to fund things in other parts of the county. On the other side, the No on Q folks wanted “no service cuts, no tax increases.” Apparently, the local accountants had gotten a prospective budget together and found out that the town’s tax base was not large enough to fund the current level of public safety services (along with other city government spending) without hefty increases in property and other taxes. The battle began to heat up.

Of course, lawn signs appeared in droves. People were seen at major intersections waving banners supporting their views. Reports in the local weekly newspaper spoke of signs being torn down, and angry homeowners who wanted their views on display. The town’s sleepy population had been (temporarily) awakened. Just a few days before the election news made the rounds that the Yes on Q campaign had been given a large last minute contribution by real estate development interests. It mattered not, in the end, as the final tally showed that the measure was defeated and the No vote received 72 percent of the total. It seems that the news also made the rounds that Castro Valley received more in services than it paid for in taxes going out to the County government.

Is this local election important? Probably not to most people, but it does illustrate a point. When people believe that they have a say in things which count, then they participate. Politics on the national scale and even on the state level generally leaves most people behind. “What’s one vote among millions?” As one political science professor used to say, “They have a low sense of efficacy.” Possibly, the fact that most government officials don’t seem to care about the little guy or gal contributes to this problem. Writing your senator gets a response in the form of a computer generated letter showing that no one really read your what you wrote.

Many scholars have suggested that America is a depoliticized society. They have debated the merits of this status for years. Obviously, it is not beneficial for people to riot over the results of elections however, the many nations where such strong attitudes exist are also those where the people participate more and voter turnout is generally higher. Today many Americans let the politicians and “experts” do their thinking for them. It might be to everyone’s benefit if there were more people more involved in the process if it brought about better leadership and results more reflective of what the people really need. In the end we might even get better government. Seems to me that it’s worth a try.

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