About Martinez — Part 1

For some reason, I have recently been thinking about Martinez, the city (in California) and its name.

I have no particular reason to think about Martinez, except for the fact it’s the capital (county seat) of Contra Costa County, where I live. But our county is divided by a largely unpopulated range of hills, mostly preserved as parkland, into a western part (called West County), which includes my city of El Cerrito, and a very much larger eastern part, where Martinez is located. And I have not needed to go to Martinez for the county services that I have needed, such as the court and  hazardous-waste disposal, because they have branches in Richmond (the hub of West County), while the county’s public library has a branch in El Cerrito that is a short walk from my house.

If I want to go to eastern Contra Costa by public transit, I need to take a BART train to Oakland, in Alameda County to the south, and there transfer to another train. West County, in fact, forms a continuous demographic unit with the western part of Alameda County, which is similarly divided by the same range of hills from its (relatively smaller) eastern part, though eastern Contra Costa extends further south than does West County, and a significant portion of the Berkeley Hills has Alameda County (specifically Berkeley and Oakland) on its western (more exactly southwestern) side and Contra Costa on its eastern (northeastern) side. And while eastern Alameda and Contra Costa counties are not as continuously populated as is the west, there too the county line is not demographically significant, as the case of the Tri-Valley, which straddles the line.

The county system has come to North America from England. But since the 19th century the British Parliament has passed, seemingly every few years, a Local Government Act redefining the functions and boundaries of counties (and other municipal units). The California system, on the other hand, formed in the 19th century, has for over a hundred years been impervious to reform; the last change occurred in 1907, with the formation of Imperial County. As they are now, counties in California range in population from 10 million (Los Angeles) to a little over a thousand (Alpine).

But at least every square meter of California’s territory belongs to a county. When it comes to other units of local government, the situation is bewildering. Some areas are incorporated as cities (or, in a few cases, towns); other areas are not (and get their municipal services directly from the county). Cities, moreover, can vary widely in their degree of independence from county government — some have their own police and fire departments, libraries and so on, and others don’t.

And then there are the special districts. Besides the almost ubiquitous school districts, there are districts for such things as community colleges, water supply, refuse collection, sewage, transportation, parks, mosquito abatement (!) — you name it. (According to my property-tax bill, I pay taxes to at least seven such districts.) Each district has its own boundaries, usually overlapping other districts, and each has a governing board (either directly elected or appointed by other elected bodies) and executive staff.

The inefficiency and wastefulness of the system are obvious, as are the possibilities for corruption. The appointed executives of both the regular municipalities and special districts often command salaries that are scandalously high (the recent City of Bell scandal is only the most notorious). The restriction on property taxes imposed by Proposition 13 means that the available tax revenues have to be spread thin, and several cities have recently had to declare bankruptcy.

Can anything be done? Well, California is too big to be governed centrally, and the counties are both too variable in size and too badly defined demographically to be viable units of local government on a statewide basis. What I have long believed is that California should be divided into a number (perhaps eight to twelve) of naturally defined self-governing regions, and each such region could then follow the model of Scotland. Yes, those thrifty Scots: their country (of 5 million people) is divided into 32 council areas, “whose councils are unitary authorities responsible for the provision of all local government services” (Wikipedia). There are also, as of this year, a single police force and a single fire-and-rescue service for all of Scotland.

I would be not at all averse to living in a region defined by the San Francisco Bay Area and in a municipality defined more or less by West County, which would provide all my local government services. Then I wouldn’t have to think about Martinez at all.

Except perhaps about the name. I’ll write about that next time.

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