Walking Away

This post was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal on July 7, 2014 as an op ed piece.

Last week the San Carlos City Council, on which I serve, opted not to move forward a proposal to swap properties with the San Carlos School District. The deal, part of which required voter approval, would have reduced school site overcrowding, better balanced rush hour traffic congestion, and avoided the loss of already critically-short athletic field space.

Despite majorities of both the Council and the School Board supporting the plan – for technical reasons moving forward required a 4/5 vote – it died. We stepped up to the line. And walked away.

Like any significant public decision, parts of our community would have benefited from the deal and parts would have been impacted. That’s inevitable in all but the most trivial public actions.

But a critical responsibility for all elected officials is to seek mitigations and compromise, and to challenge interested parties to do the same. That was done on the Transit Village – multiple times! – and in the evolution of the land swap itself. Yet despite repeated calls to do so, that approach was ultimately rejected by the opposition. Instead, neighborhood concerns – many of which were understandably magnified to excess by fear and passion — were used as rationales to keep the community from having its say at the ballot box. That was an abdication of leadership.

Concerns over divisiveness, and the potential for an election to tear San Carlos apart, were also cited as reasons for scuttling the deal. That concern, however well-intentioned, insults the people we represent. San Carlos is a strong community, full of adults who know how to disagree one moment and collaborate the next. Our Council meetings on the swap were filled to overflowing with speakers passionately holding beliefs on both sides of the issue. Yet civility and decorum prevailed. Because of the expectations the Council set, and the character of our community.

Elected leaders don’t have to, and shouldn’t, sit idly by when big issues go before voters. They have a role to play beyond supporting or opposing measures. They should set an example through their behavior, challenge misinformation, and when necessary call for decorum and reasoned debate. Being unwilling to fulfill that civic responsibility is also an abdication of leadership.

At the end of the day, killing the swap did nothing to address the issues it was designed to address. San Carlos is on track to lose a major athletic field, suffer worse traffic, and contend with overcrowded school sites. Those problems will now have to be dealt with in more difficult and expensive ways.

Unless, of course, leadership responsibilities get abdicated once again. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. But walking away from duty can be a difficult habit to break.

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