Southern California writer D.J. Waldie is best known for his remarkable, genre-creating Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (Norton), a poetic, fragmentary history of his native suburban grid town of Lakewood, California. Less well known is that Waldie's day job most of his adult life has been working for the municipality of Lakewood, which has claims on being America's first contract city—a city in which most of the services are purchased from private companies or other governments. In December, Editor in Chief Matt Welch (who worked briefly for the city of Lakewood as a teenager) sat down with Waldie to discuss how Lakewood's approach to small government has helped it weather California's struggling economy and fiscal troubles. Watch the full interview at reason.tv.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the history of the contract city concept, how it has applied to the development of Lakewood, and how Lakewood is different from cities around it?
A: Lakewood was the very first city in the nation to contract for most of its municipal services from other sources. Initially that other source was the County of Los Angeles, but in the decades following 1954 when Lakewood incorporated, we've branched out to provide services under contract with the county (like our sheriff's department) services with private industry (like trash collection and street sweeping), services with other public entities, other consortia. For example, our animal control service is done by a consortium of cities that banded together to provide animal control services. And some services are conducted in-house, like our park department, which originally was a stand-alone special district but in 1957 was folded into the city of Lakewood as our recreation department. Now, in '54, this was a radically different idea. No city in America had incorporated on that basis. So there are about 40 cities in L.A. county that are contract cities. It's not the predominant way in which cities provide services, but it's also not just a niche service-provision strategy either.
Q: And how has that affected the development of the city, its political culture or its governance culture, or just the results compared to other places around here?
A: The obvious one is that we're a city of about 83,000 persons, about 9.5 square miles, roughly the same size as Santa Monica, for example, but our work force is tiny by comparison. We only have about 170 city employees. Our city staff at City Hall is very small. Contracting allowed us to be very lean in terms of our overhead and to be very flexible because we can contract with one entity when it's providing the best service and then change our minds and contract with someone else in the future some other way. But it's very difficult to change the dynamics of a city service-provision model if you have regular full-time benefited unionized employees who are providing the services.
Q: How has Lakewood come through the longstanding unpleasantness in California in terms of local government, state government, etc.?
A: The saving grace for Lakewood in the face of all of that has been a very conservatively run city, specifically a city that's pinched every penny it can for decades and decades. And so we weren't compelled to diminish the quality of public services the city provides in our neighborhoods. Although we're suffering like all cities in Southern California are suffering, our residents haven't seen a significant erosion of the quality of life in their neighborhood because of a loss of public services.