Citizen gardeners, Rounders, city debt

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Over the last few weeks two or more locals have been secretly weeding the California Goldfields and other flowers that line our most newly-beloved city landmark. Aided by sympathetic parties in local government, these neighbors are there ripping roots for civic pride. They leave behind dirt clods and a slightly better city.

Uninterested in publicity, and unwilling to speak on record, you may not know these folks. But they’re out there, tugging along, so that both locals and Rounders can better enjoy their drive into Winters. One volunteer reports to have been inspired by someone cleaning up garbage on the street.

As part of the contract to create the roundabout, along came beautiful flowers and an array of seedy competitors. By creating conditions for competitive success, these self-appointed gardeners are giving the young flowers and hangers-on a chance to blossom into their full potential. It’s the perfect story as we look ahead toward Youth Day and our upcoming local elections.

I was born a Rounder, but as I’ve come to understand it, the original point of Youth Day was to encourage young people to get involved in local government. And so we have a “Mayor of Youth Day.” Over time, however, it seems the popular event expanded its mission to encompass all-day family fun, and so now we have duck derbies, a beer garden, and a special 16-page informational guide from the Winters Express, too.

Each year, and this year, our Youth Day Committee, mayor and all, visited the capitol. But as of press time, they have not visited the city council. With schedules chock full of extracurriculars and other college prep, can we blame them for not having enough time? Perhaps not. But I do wonder if anyone invited them.

In Winters, and elsewhere, our increased awareness of our larger social fabric — state, national, multinational — comes with an arguable loss of focus on what matters most immediately around us. And it’s not just the kids, either.

Look no further than our next city council election. There will be no race. There will be no forums, no competing ideas or visions to discuss and flesh out. Instead, the incumbents will run uncontested. It’s going to be a cakewalk.

There was one city council candidate who filed for office but did not make the race because too many of his signatories were not registered to vote.

Is Winters really doing so well we that we can forgo public discussion, let alone voting? Perhaps.

In addition to our success, though, we’re also $13.8 million in debt as of last year. Without any of the penciled out transient occupancy taxation to float us, we’re digging ourselves deeper into debt every day. We’re “under-recovering its costs by approximately $3,500,000 per year for Building, Planning, Recreation, Fire Prevention, and Police” according to our last Cost of Services study, drafted by an outside party. (I won’t dig into unfunded liabilities.)

Soon, our city’s General Plan will expire. There is no scheduled replacement plan, nor is yet a real plan to replace it or amend. Should we want to, I do not see the fees or funds in place to do either. As I understand it, an expiring General Plan will leave the city liable for further losses, as property owners seek clarity via courtroom in order to move forward with projects on their property. 

As citizens, we can turn to city council for leadership and ask them to make time on these issues. But we can perhaps look to the roundabout gardener’s example first and make time for these issues ourselves. Are we enjoying the metaphorical flowers, or doing the gardening?

An example of mine, and one of our city’s best “gardeners,” is another incumbent who will run unopposed this year, Mike Sebastian. Along with many others on the Youth Day Committee, Sebastian is doing a great deal of unpaid work to make sure Youth Day happens. After years of involvement, Sebastian reports to me that this may be his last go-round with Youth Day.

Will Youth Day be the same when Sebastian “retires?” I hope so. And if not, we may wonder if we’ve seeded the right ideas and created the right conditions for younger people to grow into these roles.

As for Sebastian’s public role as our city’s treasurer, I am thankful that for now we’re able to re-elect a representative to oversee the budget (and sign checks) for another four years. But thereafter? Without more interest in maintaining the public role, rumor is that the position will be folded into a government appointment.

The way participation is going, city managers may have to take the rest of our citizen representation along with it.  Perhaps it’s time to return to the roots. For myself, it’s definitely time to get weeding

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