Populist: a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.
Your opinion doesn’t count, because we’ve already made up your mind for you.
That’s the message citizens are hearing from public officials these days, and a lot of them don’t like it — which could help explain the rise of candidates outside the political mainstream in this election season.
▪ Donald Trump, who was a registered Democrat from 2001 to 2009 who’s never held public office, is the leading Republican candidate for president.
▪ Bernie Sanders, an independent from 1979 to 2015, just won the Democratic primary in New Hampshire by 22 percentage points.
▪ Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is weighing an independent run for the presidency.
Voters have been chafing against partisan labels for some time, and the trend has been accelerating in recent years. A Pew Research survey in 2014 found independent voters numbered nearly 4 in 10, their biggest share of the electorate in more than 75 years of polling. And the trend may well continue.
Consider, as Exhibit A, what happened at the decidedly undemocratic Democratic primary in New Hampshire, where Sanders won 60 percent of the vote to just 38 percent for Hillary Clinton … yet saw her match his delegate total because six party insiders called “superdelegates” had already pledged to support her. When one candidate loses in a landslide but still walks away with as many delegates as her rival, it’s hard to argue it’s the will of the people.
Voters want an election, not a coronation. People want a voice in the decisions that affect them, and when they don’t get it, they tend to get angry.
Meanwhile, in Morro Bay
The same thing can happen on the local level — and it did last week, when the California Coastal Commission voted 7-5 to fire Charles Lester, its executive director since 2012.
The commission had received some 29,000 emails on the subject, virtually all of them supporting Lester, and hundreds turned out to support him at a hearing Wednesday in Morro Bay.
Many of Lester’s supporters suspected he was being ousted to clear the way for more development along the coast. The commissioners denied this, but after the vote was cast, none of them explained why they’d chosen to remove him.
During deliberations, some expressed concerns that Lester hadn’t kept them informed. But the far bigger issue is the commissioners’ unwillingness to keep the public informed.
Instead of voting openly to fire Lester, they did it in closed session, citing a concern for his privacy. The reasoning: They didn’t want to discuss performance issues. Yet according to the Los Angeles Times, the agency’s own chief counsel had advised them such issues could, in fact, be discussed publicly because Lester had opted to defend himself in public, at the hearing.
Did the commission really fire Lester because it wants more development on the coast, as its critics charge?
It’s a serious allegation.
According to ActCoastal, an environmental group that monitors the Coastal Commission, every panel member who voted to retain Lester had at least as many “pro-conservation votes” as “anti-conservation votes.” Among the seven who voted to oust him, five had more votes classified as anti-conservation, one had an equal number of both and one was an alternate.
It’s worth noting that ActCoastal is an environmental group that supported retaining Lester, and we don’t know what criteria it used to categorize commissioners’ votes. Its ratings, published more than three weeks before the vote, don’t prove anything, but they’re not going to silence the critics, either. And if commissioners have other reasons for acting, as they claim, they owe it to the public to give a specific, point-by-point accounting of those reasons. Immediately. Not days later once the dust has settled and they’ve all had time to get out of Dodge.
The message they sent by failing to do so — intentional or not — is that the thousands of people who spoke up in favor of Lester don’t know what they’re talking about, that their opinions don’t matter, and that the commission won’t do them the courtesy of telling them why.
Sometimes, they listen
Fortunately, it doesn’t always turn out that way.
In Cambria, where the services district has had some perception problems in the past year or so, directors heeded pleas to “keep Cambria Fire local” and decided not to turn fire protection over to Cal Fire. As it turns out, a deal with Cal Fire could have cost as much as $145,000 more each year, confirming fears expressed by some in the community that Cal Fire would be more expensive.
The district board voted 5-0 on Friday to retain local control.
The board also recently said it would consider moving some of its meetings to the evening after some members of the public said it was difficult for them to attend during the afternoon.
This is encouraging. Cambria, the coast and the nation need more openness and responsiveness. The idea of a representative democracy is to give the public a voice in its future, not to drown that voice out with a condescending chorus of “we know better.”