I support local journalism because the Constitution demands a free press to protect our democracy. That sounds very big and conceptual, so let me break it down to what I understand and why I care.
My career inside local government has taken me to four great cities — Palo Alto, Boulder, Ventura, and Santa Barbara. The common thread between these diverse cities is an enlightened populace that actively participates in their city government. In other words, cities work and communities thrive when the people control local government, never the other way around. “Of the people, by the people, for the people” means we are accountable to ourselves, as Santa Barbarans and Americans, for building a great community.
I’ve often quipped, both seriously and in jest, that if you want to make sure we screw up something at City Hall, leave us alone to do it ourselves. Why? It’s not a lack of experience, skill, or energy. Lincoln’s prepositions — of, by and for — teach us that government simply cannot run on autopilot; it will rise or fall to the level demanded by the community it serves.
Fortunately, local government is already the most accountable government we’ve got. The practical impossibility of being heard in Washington, D.C. or Sacramento is obvious when you compare it to speaking your mind at a Council meeting on Anacapa Street or speaking with a councilmember at a local event, school, or market. And I know public participation works because my job is actually proof that you can fight City Hall. Thank goodness.
So, what does that have to do with supporting local journalism? Years ago, the general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association explained it to me this way: Our journalists are the watchful monitors who open the windows of City Hall so we can see inside and know what’s going on. By opening those windows, reporters let the cleansing sunlight of public scrutiny shine into your government. No smoke-filled back rooms. Now that is what I call an essential function!
But reporters and journalists do far more than just opening windows for the rest of us who don’t have time to watch every government meeting. Their work is not just writing what they’re fed in news releases — they dig, interpret, explain, and translate the language of bureaucracy into understandable, mercifully short sentences. They make those of us in government double-check ourselves. They keep us honest. That’s good.
Sometimes my work day runs the gamut from helping the private sector create wealth to protecting public environmental wealth against private attack. Sometimes my day means seeing the people society always seems to leave behind. I never know. But I always know that our local journalists will be there to tell you the straight story. Most of us can part with a little scrilla to support that. Indeed, we can’t afford not to when our alternative is machine-generated clickbait from the interwebs.
Best of all, I support great local journalism because it can make me laugh or cry, question who I am, take stock of my values, or even just recognize the beautiful frailty of this human comedy we all live. Believe me, after I read one of Nick Welsh’s gold-standard caricatures, I know the price of a subscription is way too low.
As a public lawyer, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t end with one of the most beautiful passages in California law. It speaks to me as your city attorney. And it speaks to me as a child of immigrants who shed blood for the light held high in America’s harbor. This circa-1953 passage comes from the preamble to California’s open government law. It is timelier than ever:
“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
Please join me in our civic duty to support local journalism.
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Santa Maria, CA 93456
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