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Editorial: California has an abundance of democracy, maybe too much

There’s only one thing as bad as a society without enough democracy and that is one with too much democracy.

Well, maybe not as bad, but still pretty unfortunate.

If that’s tough to swallow, think about it in terms of the old lawyer’s discovery trick of providing way more – boxes more – information than requested with the intent of burying one important fact under a mountain of documents.

On Nov. 4, voters will be asked to choose candidates for statewide offices, judgeships, school boards and city councils. In Sacramento County, voters will have the additional obligation of voting in 32 special districts elections with one, two or even three open seats apiece. It makes you tired just doing the math.

California has more special districts than you can shake a stick at. Your arm would cramp long before you got halfway through the approximately 2,300. They include mosquito and vector control districts that decide when to spray your neighborhood with pesticides and water districts that decide how much you have to pay when you turn on the tap. Others manage sewers, parks or cemeteries.

That’s on top of all the city council, boards of education and county supervisors. There are 482 cities in California, 1,028 school districts and 58 counties. Is your head spinning yet?

What’s wrong with having all these elected bodies? Nothing, if they are adequately monitored.

But they rarely are. People are so busy and disconnected that just a fraction even bother to turn out in national and state elections. As a result, local governments rarely get the kind of oversight they deserve when making decisions about how to spend our money.

If we’re not paying attention, they may do things we don’t want. They may even line their own pockets, as the leaders in the Southern California city of Bell did for years before getting caught.

In a lesser example, Sacramento Metropolitan Fire, a special district that probably shouldn’t exist, was preparing to ask voters earlier this year for another assessment. Metro Fire has cut costs. But the proposal still would have been too much for voters to stomach. District officials backed off after it became public. What if no one had been paying attention?

The Bee’s editorial board has long advocated for citizens charter commissions to review local special districts with an eye toward consolidating some and reforming others. So far, legislators haven’t bitten.

There’s only one way to counter an overabundance of democracy, short of eliminating it. Citizens have to get involved. Just think, if every adult picked just one local elected body to pay attention to just once a year it would go a long way to keeping just the right amount of democracy.

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