I HATE LISTS. A reluctant confession. Not proud of it. Smart, accomplished, organized people use lists. “How can you get where you want to go if you don’t have a map?” they say. And isn’t a map in life often a checklist of to-dos?
Well, to-do, to-dah. I don’t do lists and I got where I am, obviously, and I like it here, so there. Oops, that sounds like being proud of defying common wisdom, but in truth I do have my own map and mental lists, and a method of accomplishing that suits my virtues and vices. Everything in its time. But when I get it I’ve got it for good, you betcha.
Which reminds me, did you see that serial unwed mother Bristol Palin, 25, has made close to a million dollars from her “position” as spokeswoman promoting abstinence before marriage? (That counts a book and “Dancing With the Stars” appearance.) I guess you can map yourself to some pretty lucrative places even if your moral compass is broken, and the irony mines are depleted.
Back to lists. I almost always shun formal, written lists. Those of you who may read this column from time to time probably think the “I Hate Lists” lead above is a way of fooling you into thinking I don’t have a list to offer, and then bam! There it is. I must admit I do like to do that.
But no, not this time. I thought about it. A lot. It’s the end of the year and everyone makes lists, especially media people. For most of my career as a music journalist I ran away from lists. The 10 Best Albums of the Year? Rather not, for several reasons.
But pondering all that happened in our fair city in 2015 brought me to another place. There were rays of sunshine and hope, but such a trainload of serious, historic, city-changing, future-fouling problems that it’s too disheartening to try to make a list and be positive about it.
So here’s what I’ve been mulling over for quite some time.
OMBUDSMAN. I think we need one in Santa Monica.
No, it’s not something you find in a Swedish bakery, but it is a concept from that part of the world, with origins in an ancient Norse word meaning representative. Ancient idea. It may have been in practice in China and Korea as early as second century B.C.
Most nations in the world have ombudsmen — if I may for now, for convenience sake only, with full awareness that my daughter will probably make me suffer for my suffix, use the widely accepted version of the word that clearly ends in “man,” without being otherwise hoisted on a feminist petard?
If we get one in Santa Monica, shall we change it to ombudsperson? Doesn’t sound right. Actually, the word ombud is used today in Scandinavian languages to mean proxy or attorney, so maybe we can go with that. That sounds pretty authoritative too, even intimidating – “Look out, the Ombud is coming! Hide your children, hide your second set of books!”
Ombudsmen can operate on a national, state or municipal level. Their duties are usually defined as investigating and reporting on possible naughtiness in government, as reported by citizens. Rumor is the high school principal is distributing meth to math students. I heard a prominent local butcher paid for the mayor’s house and they meet all the time. Or, more likely, I have evidence a councilmember has violated the Brown Act, that an historic home was demolished without permit, or that referendum signatures were not accurately recorded.
Beyond the idea of an ombudsman being an independent government watchdog, each one is set up to suit the situation, and territory. Usually they are not prosecutors, but gather evidence and present findings, leaving other parties to take action or not. But having one trusted, neutral person that citizens can turn to, rather than trying to penetrate the intimidating mass and maze of our many city departments and employees in Santa Monica, to investigate, with authority and license, suspected wrongdoing in government, could solve a lot of problems, restore faith in our city government and create an atmosphere of openness in which many abuses, overreach and partisanship would no longer even be considered.
THERE ARE A COUPLE OF PROBLEMS.
How do you choose the ombudsman? Appointed, by say mayor, city manager or city council? Then aren’t they beholden? Not necessarily. On a national level, attorneys general and special prosecutors are appointed often from outside government, given full authority and powers, and are not subject to firing or interference by those who hired them. We can do that here. Or it could be an elected office, but then you have the usual politics, meaning it would likely be subject to SMRR approval, an extension of the city council. Some would think that’s good. Not me.
The other problem is defining the duties. Just investigating government wrongdoing is big, but how about the ombudsman also being the one person you could turn to for something else you think is not right? Your neighbor’s backyard has suddenly become a noisy daycare center, sans permits. Or she painted her curb red to keep cars from blocking her view of the park across the street. You’re getting the runaround trying to keep the basketball courts lit until the designated evening hour. So we might need more than one person.
Charles! You’re just growing the bureaucracy! How about if only the ombudsman is paid, and citizens step up to fill part time positions on an as-needed basis, no pay, just the reward of keeping Santa Monica, Santa Monica. We have quite a few people doing that now, spending long hours, and sometimes succeeding in righting wrongs, but other times not having the authority or inside connections to get things done.
That’s my “list” for the old year, and my wish for the new one. 2016: the Ombudsman Cometh.
(Note: Phil Brock will likely tell anyone within earshot that I got this idea from him because he did talk it up campaigning in the last election. But I’ve known about ombudsmen since high school. Conversely, he did not get it from me.)
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “An ombudsman has an obligation when it spots trouble, when it spots patterns, basically to speak truth to power.” —Neal Milner
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for almost 30 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at email@example.com.