Model citizens—or cranks?
Participation in local government is on the decline, and Sacramento’s most passionate, involved residents often endure bad reputations
Bill Grant has attended city council meetings at least once a month going on a decade. For years, the 86-year-old has fought to create a senior commission and improve the city’s senior center. In 2006, when he announced in front of city council that he would not be attending meetings for a short period, former Mayor Heather Fargo even replied, “Send us a postcard.”
Grant’s name, along with others such as Tracie Rice-Bailey and Rhonda Erwin, seem to appear regularly on city council comment forms each Tuesday. Yet the trio elicits a variety of reactions from the public and city staff—everything from snickers to cheers. Whether you call them citizen auditors, activists or advocates, all three are at once Sacramento’s harshest critics and also model citizens in the democratic process.
But, by expressing their opinions in public, they’ve all earned a reputation: They’re cranks.
While speaking with SN&R on the phone, Grant—like his rants at City Hall—veered from topic to topic, providing long histories of senior centers, bridge and bingo. He criticized city staff for ignoring him, which he likened to “senior abuse, but with no legal recourse.” Though he’s left phone messages, he’s “still waiting” to meet with a city council member in private, he said.
The city clerk’s website says that the city strives to nurture this “link between citizens and government.” Last year, the office started a Twitter account—@saccityclerk, which at the time of this writing has only 317 followers—and an “eComment” section on its website, which allows public input on city council agendas.
But Shirley Concolino, who was named “Clerk of the Year” by the City Clerks Association of California last May, said that despite new technology, the number of attendees at meetings has dropped over the last few years. People watch meetings online and on television, she noted, and attendance rises and falls based on an agenda issues’ contentiousness.
But the city clerk says one thing has remained constant, which is that the “same group of people” shows up at council on a regular basis.
One of these citizens is Rice-Bailey, 57, a formerly homeless woman who attends meetings to talk about Safe Ground, a nonprofit that provides Sacramento’s homeless population with a residential community. She’s attended meetings regularly since mid-2009 and volunteers at both Loaves & Fishes and also the county’s homeless count. Last November, she and John Kraintz, a friend and colleague at Safe Ground, were honorable mentions for Sacramento County’s Heroes of Human Services Awards.
On a recent Sunday, the pair sat in Rice-Bailey’s Safe Ground office inside downtown’s Loves & Fishes. Rice-Bailey said she started commenting at meetings after hearing the way a city council member talked to someone who spoke in support of Safe Ground. She wouldn’t mention any names, but says that she felt a sense of urgency to speak up.
“They do listen,” she said of the city council. “There would be no kind of overflow [shelter] at all this year for anybody had we not gone repetitiously and spoken up.”
I asked her if she felt that City Hall commenters were cranks.
“[Bill Grant] sounds like he’s angry,” she said. “He sounds a little cranky, but if you listen to what he’s saying, he’s saying, ‘Be fair to the elderly [and] be fair to the seniors.’”
Kraintz was a bit more critical, saying that some cranks never have solutions; they just vent. On the other hand, he noted that Rice-Bailey and other Safe Ground advocates have answers, because they’ve worked with architects to draft plans for a row of low-cost cottages downtown.
“I think your input at City Hall is very important in getting people to wake up to what the problem is,” Kraintz said.
Rice-Bailey admitted she still gets nervous speaking at city council meetings even though she and Kraintz agreed that council members were uniformly kind and approachable during open office hours.
Another regular, Erwin, 49, is an advocate for youth and anti-violence. Her son is currently serving a 22-year sentence after being charged with discharging a firearm during a 2005 robbery (see “A mother’s prayer” by R.V. Scheide; SN&R Feature; April 7, 2007). She’s been attending city council meetings off and on ever since his arrest and conviction.
Erwin admitted that, at first, she was driven to speak in front of the council out of pain and anger. “I remember the first time I spoke with [former] Mayor Heather Fargo, I knew I rubbed her the wrong way,” she explained. “But when I walked out of there, I met with her in the office several times after that, and a respect was earned on both sides.”
She and Concolino both allowed that it’s a person’s right, and responsibility, to express anger or vent at a city council meeting. Several times during Concolino’s 35 years with the city, the mayor has used the gavel to restore order—but rarely has a commenter been physically removed from the council chamber, she said.
Erwin has since met and worked with city council to curb youth violence.
Senior-rights advocate Grant also was pointedly more indignant over the phone. But he mentioned two praiseworthy actions from city staff: Former City Manager Bob Thomas helped take care of low-hanging branches on city property, and former Mayor Fargo added an additional weekly bingo game at the senior center.
Still, he resents politicians in general, citing that they will do anything to survive in their political climates.
But it takes two to tango: About 30 minutes after Grant’s interview, he left a voice mail at SN&R:
“This is Bill Grant and we just spoke. The reason I’m calling is because politicians pull all kinds of crazy stuff, and I just wanted to make sure you are really a reporter.”