This op ed was published November 9, 2021 in the San Mateo Daily Journal. This version may be slightly different due to editing by the Journal.
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
With apologies for the gender specificity – Edmund Burke, an Anglo-Irish statesman, lived a long time ago – these are important words for any representative democracy. We elect people to represent us to do the work to manage our communities we ourselves don’t have the time or inclination to do. It’s not that they’re better than us. It’s just they’ve promised to do a job for us. And if we don’t like how they do it or what they do, we can replace them.
Representing any community is challenging. Representing one as large and diverse as San Mateo County even more so. Which is why the Board of Supervisors appoints citizen advisory commissions to help guide their decision-making. They did this as they began considering changes to the supervisorial district lines mandated by the 2020 census. I had the privilege of serving on that commission. With members from all walks of life it provided a great snapshot of the County’s present and future.
It was also a textbook example of coming to grips with what Burke described. Because the census was significantly delayed the commissioners had little time to learn how public bodies interact with the community they serve. For example, when many people contacted us to express similar opinions it was often perceived as “everyone wants X”. Left unvoiced was what the hundreds of thousands of residents we didn’t hear from may have wanted.
Finding a bunch of well-meaning people to support a particular approach is politics 101. I’ve done it myself, multiple times. It works particularly well if the decision-makers don’t appreciate how to interpret the presented consensus. Most reasonable people don’t want to look like they’re standing against a united voice, however small that voice may be relative to the community it is trying to speak for.
Without change our system of government would collapse in the face of the constantly evolving environment it oversees. But change almost always starts with relatively small groups at the edges of the political spectrum, not the middle where the bulk of the population lives. Figuring out how to fit needed change into the existing matrix is one of the places where Burke’s reminder for elected officials to use judgment comes into play.
It’s also why most public decisions rarely satisfy those who are pushing for something to be done. But they shouldn’t let frustration keep them from striving. Because without their efforts little or no evolution would ever take place, undermining the community over the long haul.
I am confident the supervisors will carefully consider the recommendations of the District Lines Advisory Commission. But I will be surprised if they simply adopt one of the two narrowly approved recommendations it made. Either way, I expect they will use their good judgment in deciding. They owe us that and are all reasonable people.
And however much change gets included, I hope those who engaged in the process will remember it wouldn’t have happened without their efforts.
Holding the Board of Supervisors accountable for their decisions is critical for making representative democracy work. But we also need to give them the room to represent us. Even if they settle on a different course than we, as individuals, think they should.
Because while they are not specially gifted to make decisions neither are any of us. If they fulfill their duty to the community in an open and transparent manner, we’ll get a reasonable decision out of the process. One which, even if it doesn’t meet our personal desires, will be a fine next step. .