Claremont Insider: Negative Capability*

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Negative Capability*

The Claremont 400 likes to criticize Councilmember Jackie McHenry for being "negative." But what exactly do they mean?

The 400 like to toss words like "vision" around (Linda Elderkin and Sam Pedroza have both used that phrase in the past), as in "We need leaders with vision." In real terms, they mean people who won't question what former mayors Judy Wright or Diann Ring want them to see and do. They yearn for the bygone days of a Southardian paradise where every council vote was 5-0. They see any 4-1 vote or 3-2 vote as showing a lack of unanimity, which they interpret as a bad thing. And McHenry is sometimes on the losing end of a 4-1 vote, so she is naturally seen as the negative person.

But how true is this? Consider the debate on how to fund the purchase of Johnson's Pasture. We recall that on 4/25/2006 when the city council voted to go forward with the fatally flawed Parks and Pasture Assessment District, the vote was 3-2 with McHenry and Calaycay voting against (pull up the PDF file and see pages 4-8). McHenry and Calaycay argued that a General Obligation bond had a better chance of passing, even though it had a higher threshold to pass--67% compared with 51% for the assessment district. They were called "naysayers" and accused of being "negative" and lacking "vision."

Yet, they were also exactly right. The assessment got only 44% of that vote and lost; the Measure S bond got 71% and passed. Measure S also served to rally the community in a way rarely seen before in this town. And let's not forget the reaction of hardcore Claremonsters like Sandy Baldonado, who attacked the people of Claremont after the assessment lost, practically saying they didn't deserve her service. Baldonado was quoted by the Courier as saying:

  • "I'm not going to support a GO bond and I'm definitely not going to support a parcel tax because it's too convoluted and too difficult to put that package together," she [Baldonado] said. "Where on earth do you think you're going to get 66 percent? The people voting against it do not want to pay for open space."

Well, it turned out that Baldonado couldn't have been more wrong. It's just a shame she can't admit her error or the fact that she was the one who was abrasive and negative--all the things Baldonado and her friends accuse McHenry of. It was just another case of the Claremonsters projecting their own self-image on the Other (there's always someone they can blame for their own failures).

We should also recall that at that same 4/25/2006 council meeting, McHenry was the one who, after she and Calaycay lost the vote on the assessment district, requested that a backup plan be put in place for bond language so that it would would be ready in time for it to get on the November ballot. That move was critical because after the assessment lost, the city had a narrow window of less than two weeks to get the bond language to Los Angeles County officials for the 2006 general election. So, McHenry was looking more than three months ahead and wanting to have a contingency plan in place--what we would call real vision.

The vote on McHenry's motion on 4/25/2006 for the backup bond language was 4-1--Ellen Taylor was the only one who voted no (see page 9 of the PDF). So who was the negative person? Who was the naysayer?


And, what about matters where McHenry was the lone person casting a "no" vote on issues? Let's consider the city's so-called homeless ordinance, which passed 3-1 at the 11/22/2005 council meeting with McHenry being the single "no" vote (Baldonado was absent but supported the measure). The ordinance (page 4, agenda item #14) targeted public camping and storage of personal property. McHenry was the only one of the council members to question the legitimacy of criminalizing homelessness. Even such a self-proclaimed civil libertarian as Taylor supported allowing the police to arrest people for sleeping in public places--the choice of who to arrest was left up to the discretion of the police department, and the implied targets were homeless folk.

What happened? The city of Los Angeles lost a court case challenging a very similar law. In April 2006, the L.A. homeless ordinance was ruled unconstitutional by Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Claremont was forced to suspend its implementation of its ordinance.

McHenry was correct it turned out. But under the Claremont 400 theory of public policy, she should have gone along with the other council members and abandoned what turned out to be the right line of reasoning.

Sometimes you have to be willing to take a stand on principle; sometimes that means standing alone. That is certainly something the Claremont 400 wants to discourage, and we think the city has suffered in the past for the absence of that strength of character.

Sometimes, "vision" is really myopia.

*Negative Capability