Sunday, July 04, 2010

Special districts also suffer from HOA-itis

It's understandable why residents want local control of fire protection, parks and water. Hundreds of special districts sprouted across California to provide such services.

But there's a disturbing downside to the proliferation of all these fiefdoms, particularly independent special districts that have their own elected boards and run their own affairs.

As the 2009-10 Sacramento County grand jury's final report laid out in excruciating detail, because so many operate outside the same kind of public scrutiny trained on city councils and county boards of supervisors, there's an appalling lack of financial transparency, accountability and oversight.


Special districts have been suggested as public alternatives to private local HOA government. Unlike HOAs organized under state corporation codes, special districts are governmental entities authorized by state government codes. As this Sacramento Bee editorial points out, however, special districts often lack an open, responsible and accountable governance ethic and require better oversight. Notably, the editorial describes special districts as fiefdoms, a term often applied to HOAs.

This suggests that the smaller and more local a form of government, the more likely cult of personality instead of rule of law will be the predominating governing standard. Since they are small, they are more able to hide in the cracks and avoid the disinfecting sunlight of public and media scrutiny.

It's worth bearing in mind for those seeking an alternative to private local government. Ditto for those who contend smaller government is closer and thus more accountable to its constituents. In theory perhaps but not necessarily in practice.


Benjamin Martin said...

Would you tell me please, Mr. Howard, why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away? An elected legislature can trample a man's rights as easily as a king can.

George Orwell said...

The central problem — how to prevent power from being abused — remains unsolved.... ‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds.

Anonymous said...

At least the special district board can be held accountable. The "you knew it when you purchased here" is not a defense. "Preserves property values" doesn't hold water. Closed records and closed meetings are actionable and can even invoke criminal culpability. At least the statutory structure for special districts has not been so gamed so as to render the hapless residents wholly without remedy.

Fred Pilot said...

That's true. If you have to take a special district to court seeking declaratory relief, the law is more on the side of residents than it is with corporate governed HOAs. However, because special districts are small like HOAs, I believe they are more likely to go rogue because they know they are being watched less than larger local governments and therefore are more reliant on a good governance ethic of responsible self compliance.

Since special districts are funded by property taxes assessed on an ad valorem basis, arguably they have greater stake than HOAs in enforcing standards in order to protect property values.