Good story in the New York Times yesterday, which I heard expanded upon and rehashed on public radio, en route to Wayne State yesterday. It was about a growing movement to recall mayors and city councils, not for mal- or misfeasance in office, but for doing shit that pisses voters off. Lately, that would mean: “their jobs.”
I paid attention because it happened here. Grosse Pointe Shores, the wealthiest of our five leafy little Edens, went through a bruising recall earlier this year, aimed at the mayor and four council members who voted for a 1-mill tax increase to finance road repairs. There was a similar attempt in the Woods, where I live, over a similar tax bump, but it didn’t advance beyond the petition-passing stage. In the NYT story, the lead anecdote deals with another city:
Daniel Varela Sr., the rookie mayor of Livingston, Calif., learned this the hard way when he was booted from office last month in a landslide recall election. His crime? He had the temerity to push through the small city’s first water-rate increase in more than a decade to try to fix its aging water system, which he said spewed brownish, smelly water from rusty pipes.
“We were trying to be responsible,” said Mr. Varela, whose action set off a lawsuit in addition to his recall as mayor of Livingston, which is in the Central Valley. “But as soon as the rates started to kick in, people who weren’t paying attention were suddenly irate.”
In the radio interview, Varela said he was elected on a platform that included a promise to improve the city’s water quality, so he did. The voters’ response was, essentially, but it wasn’t supposed to cost anything!
In the Shores, city services are at country club-concierge levels. A woman I know who lives there said that on the first garbage-collection day after they moved in, there was a knock on the door. She opened it to find a city public-works employee, offering a key to her house. The previous owner wanted the trash picked up from inside the garage, he said; would she like to continue the arrangement, in which case he would keep the key, or would she like to take it back and put her own trash out? The police respond — promptly — to calls from residents fearful of entering their own houses, because they saw a strange car parked on the street; they will escort the resident inside and do a room-by-room check for monsters. For this, residents pay taxes on a par with the other Pointes, but the collapse of the real estate market has meant a disastrous shortfall in tax receipts, which means…well, you know the drill.
The standard taxpayer response is Tim Gunn’s: Make it work. That’s what’s going on now. Maintenance schedules are lengthening, user fees are rising, municipal employee salaries are frozen or trimmed; small perks like car allowances are disappearing. In the Pointes, we’re still in patch-patch-patch mode. But my students in public-affairs journalism, each of whom is covering a city in the metro area, are turning in stories that turn my hair white. One city is likely going to sell or otherwise privatize their municipal rec center. One school board held their first-year meeting in a cacophony of complaints about students not getting counseling services they need, thanks to millions in budget cuts just now being felt. More are surely coming.
The collapse of the auto industry surely would have brought some of this to pass no matter what, but for me, this is one more turn of events to blame on the people who wrecked real estate by turning the mortgage market into a casino. However, it is our mess to clean up, which is one reason I’m paying a great deal of attention to who is representing me in any number of public-policy arenas of late. When I think about it, I wonder what could have been easier than running a well-to-do suburb in the high-cotton days, the money flowing reliably year after year, the most perplexing decisions in how to spend it all. But those days are gone. We need people who are present, and engaged, every step of the way.
For the record, I have to say I understand the anger of voters, and it’s not as simple as them being big babies, as Michael Kinsley once called American taxpayers, who want everything, now, and at Third World prices. It’s very hard to justify tax increases in a recession, when everyone is already making do with less. I wonder if maybe this is one of those fulcrum moments in American history, when we redefine the whole idea of what “public” really is, and the very idea of a municipal rec center passes into memory as something we could once afford, but can’t anymore. Oh, well — kids can play basketball in their driveways, and isn’t an indoor pool just a little too luxurious, anyway? Why do we need libraries, when we all have broadband? And so on.
One thing I do know: I’m no longer paying attention to bumper-sticker politics. Don’t you even knock on my door and tell me you’re going to push for “balanced budgets.” If you can’t tell me how, take your literature down the road. The job’s too important to be a resume-padder for some lawyer looking to make partner next year.
Eh, let’s lighten up with some bloggage:
Tom and Lorenzo wind up a season’s worth of “Rachel Zoe Project” recaps with another winner. You are encouraged to check out the screen grab of the star in a dress that reveals her bony chest and the edges of her sad little fat-starved puppy-ear breasts. Her husband keeps bugging her to have a baby, but not to eat a sandwich. The body protects itself first, Rodger; I doubt this woman has ovulated in the last decade.
For the architects in the room, a WSJ column about the perils of designer buildings. I don’t know if the facts are entirely present — this is entirely out of my knowledge zone — but it echoes the experience of the Snyderman family of Fort Wayne, who once had a sexy Michael Graves house that went wrong from day one.
Speaking of celebrity architects, I met the owners of this Frank Lloyd Wright house in Detroit at a party a couple years ago, when they were still mid-restoration. Everybody seemed to know where this place was, but I didn’t, and so hadn’t seen it until the magazine story this month. Man, what a jaw-dropper. I know Wright houses are notorious for problems, but to live in a space that gorgeous would almost be worth a few leaky windows. Make sure you check out the photos.
The owners also have the best and most creative florist shop in town. Yeah yeah, I know — gay men, flower arranging, yadda yadda. But these guys are good. I remember talking to one about the difficulties in getting their early customers to appreciate the beauty of a bunch of daisies, tied in rough twine, stuck in a Mason jar. They don’t deliver out my way without a huge surcharge, which is probably for the best. I’d go broke cheering myself up.
And with that, I think it’s time to say adieu for the weekend. Our heat wave is ending. I’ll try to console myself with an apple pie.