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Clemons: “Charter Not The Problem”

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So says former San Bernardino Charter Review Committee member

Chris Levister

Carl Clemons, who served as a longtime member of the San Bernardino Charter Review Committee under Mayor Judith Valles (1997-2006) says ongoing efforts to repeal or radically change the city charter are more about assessing blame for the city’s bankruptcy than focusing on real financial solutions.

“It’s the finances. We’re broke. The ship is sinking,” says Clemons. He says to dedicate hours of partisan debate to the charter as the city faces a fiscal cliff is irresponsible and sends a troubling message to the citizens that their elected leaders are out of touch with the serious reality of bankruptcy.

Proponents of the change to a general-law city say the city’s bankruptcy filing highlights an “outdated” “antiquated” charter that can only be changed by a citywide vote. Clemons argues some in the administration have convinced many in the city of an upside-down account of what the authors of the charter were doing – “and timid members of the City Council have let these false impressions harden into conventional wisdom.”

“The charter is one of many city documents that beg review if not change”, he said. “But not in the midst of a financial and public relations maelstrom.” Clemons said the past 25 years have brought unforeseen, astounding and alarming changes in the city. “We have a city “unraveling” with its more than 210 thousand people in various stages of polarized engagement or numbed complacency.”

He said the swirling vortex has stained San Bernardino’s once enviable reputation and sent employees and businesses fleeing the city in droves. We’re scrambling to protect our assets from creditors, struggling with persistent high unemployment, dwindling housing stock, cuts to schools, potholes, darkened streets and rising crime. “What are the priorities? Where is the accountability?” said Clemons. “Shouldn’t we be more concerned about righting the ship than repealing the charter?”

But the message isn’t resonating with Mayor Patrick Morris and others at City Hall. “This is a government in habitual chaos - the word `ungovernable' comes to mind,” Mayor Morris said, blaming the charter for much of that chaos but saying it might be best if residents led the charge.

Sixth Ward Councilman Rikke Van Johnson and others members of the council claim repealing the charter would ultimately save money by allowing streamlined services, consolidated elections and other benefits.

“All of your rules are made in Sacramento. You can't make your own rules,” countered City Attorney James F. Penman, who wants San Bernardino to maintain its status as a charter city and whose position has been at the center of the city's recent charter debates. Penman claims San Bernardino's charter could be improved, but said City Hall needs to work its way through bankruptcy before attempting charter reforms. Ironically Penman has been at the center of past efforts to change the charter says Clemons. In 2004 he authored a proposed charter change that roiled the city’s black community. Clemons then chairman of the Social Action Committee of St. Paul AME Church recalls the dust up over voting disenfranchisement issues of Blacks and Latinos. The unsuccessful effort sought to reduce the authority of the Mayor’s position and change the ward system of electing council members.

“This was the issue that started the uproar in the Black community and led to protests and forced the NAACP to threaten a lawsuit if the proposal pushed forward,” said Clemons in a July 2004 interview.

Three citywide elections have been held since 2000 to change parts of the charter. Voters rejected two, both of which would have made the city attorney post appointed rather than elected. Referring to the City Council’s 4-3 vote Monday not to put the charter measure on the November ballot Clemons says the citizens are better served if the council re-establishes the Charter Review Committee.

He admits given the political vitriol of the last several years, it too will probably be marked with heated discord of division and partisanship. “I’m all for reviewing the charter. But to simply hand the question of repeal directly to a mostly un-informed electorate based on superficial exposure, sketchy beliefs, myths and assumptions, demonstrates the kind of poor leadership that got us into this bankruptcy mess in the first place.”

Clemons, 88 who became the first African American chairman of the city’s Planning Commission and currently serves as a contributor to the San Bernardino Oral History Project says he has tried to stay away from the finger pointing that shackles City Hall. Instead he says he wants to shine a historical light on a time when the 46-page charter was treated as a remarkable working document much like the U.S. Constitution.

Like the Constitution the city charter has evolved with time, he said. “Take the case of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The three amendments made slavery illegal and freed Americans who had been held as slaves. The amendments taken together were intended to eliminate racial discrimination in the United States.” Similarly when African American residents in San Bernardino leveled charges of unequal employment opportunities in 2001, committee members collectively reviewed the charter in a decent and orderly fashion.

“Our first order of business was to leave politics at the door. We listened to the opposing sides. Then we gathered the facts before recommending solutions that served the city and all of its citizens, not just a chosen few,” said Clemons. “We insisted on accountability.” Clemons said given the current acrimonious political landscape, it is crucial that citizens be better informed about the city’s charter — and not only about our founding documents but about San Bernardino history. “But to meet that desirable goal, we must do the required homework.” “In these times of fiscal emergency and uncertainty as citizens, our hope is that we can all put our differences aside and move forward together,” he said. “The sidebar debates that continue to divide us ignore the 900 pound gorilla in the room and ultimately tip the tide toward even greater financial instability.”

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