I know that this sounds like an impossibly dry civil-service point, and believe me that I wouldn’t stress it if I hadn’t come to believe it. Brief example: Despite the city’s poverty, pay for its police and firefighters has been automatically tied to levels in some of California’s wealthiest cities, and has kept going up as the city’s resources have gone down. The report from the professional consulting group that has been working with the city government to analyze the city’s plight (Management Partners, of Cincinnati), which is due within a few days, is likely to focus on the near-impossibility of reviving or even governing San Bernardino, let alone getting out of bankruptcy, unless it goes through something like fundamental constitutional reform.
Why do I say that the report is likely to come to that conclusion? Because it’s what this same consulting firm warned in two “disaster ahead! change course now!” reports for the city before the bankruptcy, in 2007 and 2010. And why do I mention it at all? Because it suggests a different civic conclusion than the one that has run through many of our previous reports.
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Last year in a magazine article, I made the point that has come up frequently through of our travels: that at just the moment when common-sense, practical-minded governance is proving so difficult at the national level, it prevails at the city and regional level.
San Bernardino has, so far, been an exception to that pattern, in ways I’ll describe in due course. Why should this even matter to people outside the town? Because it directs attention to the often-neglected reality that the rules and norms of our governing systems really do matter.
For instance: The fledging United States found that they really couldn’t survive under the flawed rules of the Articles of Confederation. It took the practical-minded revisions of the Constitution to create a functioning republic. Of course in practice our Constitution is no longer so practical minded. Madison, Hamilton, and Washington would never have set up a two-votes-per-state Senate if there were a 70-to-1 population difference between states, as we now have between California and Wyoming; nor life tenure for Supreme Court justices, if longevity had been so great. But America has been rich and lucky enough to get along with a flawed system. Similarly, California as a whole is rich and vital enough, barely, to survive its crazy “reform”-minded term-limit rules and its initiative system.
San Bernardino’s governing system is as unusual among cities as California’s is among states, or America’s among nations. But unlike California as a whole, and unlike America, San Bernardino is not rich or lucky enough to survive the handicap of a badly flawed system. It doesn’t have the same margin for error. That is the drama that will come to a climax very soon when the consultants offer the “Plan of Adjustment” they have worked out for city officials recommending how San Bernardino should make its way forward, and the supervising federal judge, Meredith Jury, rules on the plans.