It’s an old cliché that people get the government they deserve. If that’s the case, for many years Stockton’s residents earned a failing grade for their civic literacy and involvement, rewarded with leadership that oversaw sprawling expansion and a slide toward municipal bankruptcy. But a new effort is trying to give the next generation of Stocktonians the tools they need to be better civic stewards.
Earlier this month, Record columnist Michael Fitzgerald unveiled “Stockton Government: How It Works, and How to Make It Work for You.” Fitzgerald is the main author of the 14-page pamphlet that will be incorporated into the Stockton Unified School District civics curriculum. It’s designed to give students in the Stockton Unified School District — and eventually all students in the metropolitan area — a crash course on the major players and features of city governance.
The work can be found online and is free to reproduce and distribute. Fitzgerald called it “a gift to my city” during a recent interview on Capital Public Radio.
The gift, which also received contributions from the rest of the Stockton Civics Group, was a long time coming. Fitzgerald has long opined that a major contributor to Stockton’s struggles has been a lack of engagement on the part of the populace. And on the occasions when residents have engaged, they’ve often backed the wrong horses due to an uninformed viewpoint and general disaffection.
Educating future voters before they are old enough to head to the polling place seems like a logical way to cure those ills. How many times has a resident railed at the City Council about school cutbacks, obviously ignorant that the city of Stockton and Stockton Unified School District have completely different governing structures and funding sources? If people don’t even know which people run which civic functions, how can they possibly make informed decisions about the direction of the community?
Of course, they can’t. “Stockton Government” tries to fix that.
As a 101-style introduction, the pamphlet dutifully covers the basics in a quick-reading format. It touches on the City Manager-City Council form of government, gives a basic rubric for judging council members and delves into how those people actually get into office. My guess is that even those who consider themselves observers of Stockton politics will learn some detail about city government — whether it’s the basics of using the Public Records Act, or the cumbersome nature of council and mayoral elections. Few would score 100% on the 17-question test at the end.
Perhaps a more cynical viewpoint isn’t appropriate for the booklet’s intended novice audience, but it could have hit harder when explaining how money and insider influence can tip the scales of government away from favoring the public good.
But overall, the work of Fitzgerald and others is a welcome attempt to change the political culture of Stockton, one that often resembles that of a small town run by a few influential families, individuals and businesses rather than a metropolitan hub of 350,000. If Stockton is to emerge stronger from its bankruptcy, more efforts like this will have to be made. And more people will have to step up and get involved in the game, rather than simply throw complaints from the sidelines.