KMPH Special Report: Are Our Politicians Listening?
FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. (KMPH) —
Jeff Highbaugh likes to run outside.
"I've always noticed that when I'm running in the Valley, there's an extra layer of gunk," Highbaugh said.
Robin Simmons has two little ones.
"My concern is the expulsion rates in the schools. Over the past couple of years, they seem to be doubling in number," Simmons said.
Socorro Martinez is a mom too. She lives in Sanger.
"I do see a lot more homeless people around," she said.
New mom Natalie Azparren lives in Visalia. Her home is just feet away from a new elementary school under construction.
"I had heard different things, that they might be busing children in. So I was just curious about what it was going to be because I think it's probably going to affect our home value," Azparren said.
They're four different people with four different concerns.
But they have one similar opinion when it comes to how those concerns might be addressed.
"I think there's a huge disconnect between our elected officials and the public that they serve. I think they end up having their own agenda. And I don't feel that they are concerned with one person with one concern," Simmons said.
But why is it when it comes to local government, we feel so small; like our thoughts and concerns disappear in the shadows.
"I'm just one guy out of the pool of other issues," Highbaugh said.
Is that feeling of "insignificance" based on fact or misconception?
We decided to find out.
So here's how we did it.
We paired each of our citizens with an elected official in their area.
Jeff got Fresno City Council Member Larry Westerlund.
Socorro was paired up with Fresno County Supervisor Judith Case.
Robin had Fresno Unified School Member Janet Ryan.
And Natalie went with Visalia City Council Member Greg Collins.
The citizen then wrote a letter, sent an email and made a phone call to their politician about a concern they have.
We gave each politician at least ten days to respond, either by phone, email or snail mail.
Our citizens weren't optimistic.
"I don't expect them to respond. I would expect it to be a canned response if anything," Simmons said.
But she was wrong.
"She called me back within two hours of my initial phone call," Simmons said.
School board member Janet Ryan didn't call her back directly; instead Ryan paired Robin up with someone else who's an expert on the issue she presented about expulsion rates in Fresno Unified schools.
"I know that the individual was referred to the Constituent Services Office, because I wouldn't have those answers at my fingertips. But the Constituent Services Office certainly can get them very quickly," Janet Ryan, Fresno Unified School Board Member, said.
"I was really shocked at not just the quickness with the information that she got back to me and the contact, but the fact that she really took my question personal and really took time and thought about it," Simmons said.
"Unfortunately, I wish I could say that I would get a quick response. But I don't think so," Martinez said.
But Socorro was surprised too.
She got a letter from Supervisor Case's office, just days after sending her letter.
"I feel like we're being a heard, we're being listened to," Martinez said.
"My district represents 185,000 people, nine cities, and five unincorporated communities. We do our best to get back to people. And if somebody takes the time to write a letter, we try to get back on that letter to give them a response directly," Fresno County Supervisor Judith Case said.
But not everyone heard back in those 10 days.
When it came to Jeff's concern about air quality, Council member Larry Westerlund never responded.
"At the very least, just acknowledging, hey I got your message," Highbaugh said.
Westerlund says 10 days is just not enough time.
"It was postmarked on April the 7th, which means we would have gotten it on April the 9th, which gives us all of five working days to respond," he said.
"The letter was postmarked five days, but the phone call and the email, those things are instantaneous. What's your response?" I asked Westerlund.
"We get to the ones as soon as we can; something like this takes research and takes time," he responded.
Westerlund says response time depends on the issue.
"If it had been a raised concrete curb, if it had been garbage cans tipped over, if it had been cars up on blocks, we do a bang up job of getting to those directly affected issues very quickly," Fresno City Council Member Larry Westerlund said.
As for Natalie, Visalia City Councilman Greg Collins didn't respond either; that is until we called him.
"He had said he was sorry. He was on vacation. And if I wanted to get a hold of him in the future I could get a hold of him on his cell phone," Azparren said. "He basically told me that I needed to talk to the district, that it was something they would know more about."
Collins says, after being on the council for two decades, he's just used to people contacting him the old school way. And he says he was unaware of Natalie's email, phone call and letter.
In a statement to KMPH, he said: "People don't seem to be shy about calling me at my house. I've had my phone number in the phone book for all 21 years and I don't mind people calling me at home. I'm starting my 21st year on the city council and no one has ever had a problem getting a hold of me."
"I did expect him to respond, even if he didn't know the answer. I kind of expected him to call back and say this is who you would call for that type of information because of how many ways I did ask him," Azparren said.
All of our citizens say they understand their local leaders are busy.
But when concerns are met with crickets, constituents take note.
"It's also probably part of the reason why people don't vote and people aren't involved in the process anymore, because they don't feel like they're being heard," Simmons said.
But those who did hear say don't be discouraged.
"I think they're all important. That's not for me to decide whether they're important or not. Anyone who takes the time to contact me feels that their issue is important," Ryan said.
"If they have a problem and it's possible to try to identify how we get that solved, we'll work with them," Case said.
For Jeff, Robin, Socorro and Natalie our experiment was eye-opening.
"We put them into office so they could serve the community. So I prefer that they call me back," Azparren said.
And for our local leaders, we hope it was eye-opening for them too.
We do want to note that Jeff, our participant concerned about the Valley's dirty air, received a follow-up letter from Council Member Larry Westerlund last week.
His original letter was sent out at the beginning of April.