Leadership as Deference

About two weeks ago a member of my Board alerted me about an item that was coming up before the Santa Cruz City Council related to overnight parking on community college campuses. “That’s peculiar” I thought,  because the City of Santa Cruz doesn’t have a community college. I was already attending the meeting for a number of items anyway– to advocate for finally improving the highway 1/9 crossing bridge, the waste water contract between SCW and Soquel Creek, and of course, to learn more about a potential rent registry. So when this item came up I was particularly stunned to hear what Councilmember Drew Glover, the only signatory on the staff report, had in mind: endorsement of Assembly Bill 302, which would force California community colleges to provide overnight parking for students experiencing homelessness.

Now the intent of this legislation seems noble and straight forward enough, perhaps even enough so to be worthy of (or somehow in need of?) an endorsement from a small to medium sized coastal city, council; but as is always the case with policy, the devil is usually in the details. “Details” most often referring to funding, and by “funding”, usually the non-existence of it. Such is the case here, and is why despite such righteous intentions over 20 community colleges throughout the state have come out against the bill. This is understandable when you consider that this potential new law asks them to turn over, and presumably manage, clean, and facilitate the continual, and perhaps permanent relocation of an untold number of students within their shared facilities, with no financial support.

That’s what we in the business called an “unfunded mandate”, and boy are we familiar with the unintended consequences they usually bring… (AB 109, Prison Re-alignment anyone?). Yet they have been particularly devastating for education, what with standardized testing, and the constant redrawing of district maps and funding formulas. But the true kicker of the evening, and the real reason I am writing this article is not about the legislation, it’s about the poor leadership that was on display before the action was evening considered.

Not only did Councilmember Glover not get the support of any of his peers on the dais for his item, initially, but upon further questioning it was found out that he didn’t even bother to reach out to anyone at Cabrillo College… You know, the ONLY local community college, the one that Drew actually attended(!)… that one. Turns out that Cabrillo staff had only learned about the item from Mayor Watkins, who reached out as a professional courtesy because she understands how disastrous unfunded mandates in eduction can be.

But it gets worse.

After then hearing testimony from representatives of the Cabrillo Board of Trustees, echoing the concerns of staff, Councilmember Glover had the audacity to dismiss their concerns entirely, to their face, and then personally call out Cabrillo’s President Dr. Mathew Wetstein for being “out of touch with reality”. Really Drew?!? The man charged with effective management of a massive educational institution, firmly supported by his staff and elected board in his(their) position, who you’ve never even met (because you apparently couldn’t be bothered to), is the one out of touch with reality?

Contrast this to real leadership, as demonstrated on this very same issue by Vice Mayor Justin Cummings. Justin Cummings, Ph.D, who works at UC Santa Cruz in an academic research capacity, also recognized the plight of homeless students on campus. But rather than seek out and attempt to coerce his fellow Councilmembers to endorse an unfunded state mandate (and then attempt to shame people who disagreed with him into the public record), he simply reached out to the local administration and the students he knew to be suffering. He talked to them, first. He didn’t assume the moral high ground, instead he demonstrated a genuine quality of leadership: deference.

What Vice Mayor Cummings has been participating in since has been regular meetings with students and UC admin to work out a compromise, and hopefully, a mutually agreed upon solution. Even if that never materializes, he at least tried to get divergent groups to collaborate, recognize shared interests, and ultimately compromise. Sound familiar? It’s how democracy has always worked.

Turns out our electeds don’t know everything, though most of them seem to have no problem meeting with and learning from other people and organized groups about what they might need to brush up on. They also have staff, (yes even local City Councilmembers have support staff), but it helps if you listen to them, instead of bullying them, and treating them as an ongoing political opponent. The people who work in local government, especially those who rise to the ranks of department heads, and university presidents, have years of experience and schooling to draw from. They are domain experts, in fact, that is essentially the core focus of their job. Paying them a little deference, or god forbid a phone call, might change your perspective.

There are no such qualifications to serve on City Council, however, you are just expected to be a community leader. The best leaders don’t necessarily know everything, but they also don’t claim to.