Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Martinez: A Cautionary Tale of Urban Development and Campaign Finance

By Norma Fox

The sad tale of once small town Martinez was poignantly described by former Martinez City Councilman Bill Wainwright in a recent Contra Costa Times article (Nov.10,2007, pg. A19). [Wainwright, an incumbent, was defeated in 2006 due, in part, to funding by out-of-town developers who supported his opponents.]

Once a compact community surrounded by ranch lands and orchards, in the1950s Martinez began to meet the fate of many a small town that embraces without restraint the “improvement” schemes of wealthy real estate developers. Over a series of years, the peripheral open lands were annexed to the city and converted into housing developments. Now, just a few decades later, the population has jumped to 36,000 and Martinez struggles with a decaying town core, surrounded by sprawling subdivisions and shopping malls.

Why would the elected leadership of a vibrant community choose to adopt development plans that drain away the town’s charm and vitality? Were they suddenly put under a hypnotic spell by the corporate developers? No, they were gradually replaced. Over time, the outside developers simply poured huge sums of money into the election campaigns of candidates who were inclined to agree with their vision of urban development.

The hijacking of a town begins with the hijacking of elections, relentlessly and methodically, over a series of several election cycles. Here is Benicia, after our recent election, we now have a second chance. Although big money did its best to mesmerize our town with a tidal wave of slick and deceptive mailers (2/3 of all money spent came from outside special interest groups), there were enough alert voters (a mere 178 to be exact) unwilling to take the bait, that their efforts went down to defeat. Now let’s take the necessary steps to prevent the fate of Martinez from happening to our town. “The necessary first step,” says Bill Wainwright, “is to get big money campaign contributors out of local politics.”

Here is the Martinez tale in Bill Wainwright’s own words:

“Martinez is, like many older towns, a divided community. It’s divided between its older town core and the larger periphery that was annexed between the 1950s and 1980s.

Then, real estate developers sold “tax base improvement” to the town “fathers” (no town mothers then), starting a democracy-eroding relationship that continues to this day.

Subdivisions replaced ranch land and orchards. Most of the new residents in those subdivisions never connected with the old downtown core that was losing commercial vitality to freeway-accessible, suburban shopper-convenient malls and the new I-680 bridge that replaced the ferry [in 1962].

The developers needed votes on the council to get their projects through. They continue to contribute heavily to local campaigns, looking for and finding candidates willing to oblige their needs. They now have all five council members on their side.

With 60 percent of Martinez voters now living in the subdivisions periphery, it’s easy to win an election with slick mailers and big signs financed by developers.

The now infamous 2004 Measure M redevelopment advisory vote saw developers outspend opponents 5 to 1.

Voters and their candidates who have an actual connection with the town are regularly outgunned.

To reconnect our city government with its people, the grip of big money on elected officials has to be broken.”

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