When a celebrity runs for mayor, people pay attention. That was the case in Ojai, California this fall when former actor and Happy Days star, Anson Williams, ran against the local incumbent, Mayor Betsy Stix. For weeks after the election, it looked like he had won too, with Mayor Stix making a statement that appeared to many to be a concession to Williams; but toward the end of the month, the story started to change and when all the votes were counted, Mayor Stix won by 42 votes. (Confirmed, of course, by a recount, paid for by an ex-lover.) Some might love this juicy underdog story–local yoga teacher beats national celebrity–but, as reported by The Wrap, the way in which the election was won just might change that tune. Mayor Stix appears to be as honest and transparent as George Santos, with special interests behind her.
In many ways, Ojai is a microcosm for America: locals get more news from Facebook and their neighbors than the local paper. The discussion is all opinion, often veering quite far from facts, which is something Facebook can’t possibly police as they have no way to investigate local politics. Misinformation isn’t just prevalent; it’s used to intentionally manipulate reality–even in city council meetings. (The same is true in many toxic office cultures.) People are often unaware that they are being misled, so they can’t possibly think to step back and challenge what they are being fed. It’s time to ask the question: when do leaders become accountable for misleading?
Trust and Transparency
In the book Transparency, business ethics professor James O’Toole writes: “trust is created by the behavior of leaders toward followers: When leaders treat followers with respect, followers respond with trust. Leaders show their respect by always treating followers as ends in themselves–and never as means to achieve their own ego or power needs, or even to achieve the legitimate goals of the organization. Leaders demonstrate their respect by giving followers relevant information, by never using or manipulating them, and by including them in the making of decisions that affect them.”
That sounds a lot like the approach we seek in local government, but that is clearly not the case in Ojai, where more transparency appears to be needed.
I moved to this community in August, 2022. Just two months later, on October 12, I was invited to a campaign event held at the home of a local couple aimed at raising support for four candidates for city council, including Mayor Stix and then-candidates Rachel Lang and Andrew Whitman.
At that event, Lang shared her motivations to run: two past traumas, the loss of a baby and anti-lesbian hate mail in her mailbox gave her the need for a new purpose and she wanted to make a commitment to environmental issues, making statements that, as a former head of Climate Change and Sustainability Services at accounting firm EY where we helped clients make appropriate environmental statements, I would have labeled greenwashing. Whitman used fear-mongering, lies, and other psychological warfare techniques while running on a kindness platform to scare the audience into believing that he was responsible for protecting the valley from a highway and without electing him the valley would be under threat from future development. After reading remarks prepared for her by the emcee of the event, Tom Francis, Mayor Stix admitted to me privately that she knew “nothing about leadership” and that she was “just asked to run.” I was then immediately pulled aside by Stix’s partner and introduced to Francis as the manager of Mayor Stix and some of the other candidates’ campaigns. He is also the leader of non-profit, Simply Ojai, operating as a 501(c)(3), a charity with no large donations reported but with stated goals aimed at impacting affordable housing.
Where Transparency Is Needed
On December 1st, days after it was announced that Mayor Stix, Andy Whitman, and Rachel Lang had won their seats, Simply Ojai filed a law suit to stop the development of an affordable housing project that individuals associated with Simply Ojai had unsuccessfully lobbied against with the prior city council. That set off alarm bells for many. If you’ve ever read Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, what some consider a guide to manipulating others, that’s rule #3: Conceal your intentions. For the public to have trust in their leadership, transparency about these relationships is paramount. Otherwise, as discussed in The Wrap, this appears to be a calculated effort by a special interest group to prevent affordable housing that California Law was set up to encourage, and, in doing so, line the pockets of lawyers who are friends of the Mayor while costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And that is only what the public can see.
Leaders Build Trust
As reported in the Ojai Valley News, there may have been discussions that might include information about the relationship between Mayor Stix and Simply Ojai as part of a closed-door session that councilwoman Leslie Rule, the only city council person to win in the last election without ties to Simply Ojai, would like to bring to light under California’s Brown Act. The Brown Act was put in place to bring the non-sensitive information in these meetings to the publics’ attention. Mayor Stix and the city attorney, Matthew Summers, seek to prevent the disclosure of information from that closed-door session. The reasons for that are unknown as neither has made any clarifying comment about the type of information being concealed. That desire to conceal is alarming to the citizens of Ojai.
It also brings up another concern: these public officials have a fiduciary duty to the public that they seem to be ignoring. Fiduciary duties include impartiality, accountability, and preserving the public’s trust. Why then has Mayor Stix taken further steps, particularly in the February 14th city council meeting, to move public comments on city issues to the end of the session instead of the beginning without precedent to do so and a long history of hearing the public first? Why did councilperson Lang support that effort when she was notified beforehand by members of her district that it would be limiting the free speech First Amendment rights of her constituents? And, why, then, are public comments being put at the end of the agenda on the 28th as well when there is not precedent for this pattern of limiting the voices of citizens?
These are the kinds of questions that bring leadership into question. If the citizens of Ojai are being manipulated in elections, fed misinformation in city council meetings about the law by trusted officials, and excluded from airing comments about the making of decisions by having those comments moved to late evening hours (after 10pm), what kind of leadership is there?
In Transparency, leadership scholar Warren Bennis, science journalist Daniel Goleman, and journalist Patricia Ward Biederman write: “when we talk about information flow, we are not talking about some mysterious process…Just as the free flow of information can maximize the likelihood of success, damming its flow can have tragic consequences.”
Isn’t the role of government to prevent those consequences, not cause them? That is why the Brown Act was passed. It’s also what makes the efforts of Leslie Rule even more important.
Why Leslie Rule Rules
On January 24th, Leslie Rule had prepared comments to disclose information about some “improprieties” to the public, but she was stopped by the mayor and city attorney Summers. Her comments were published by the Ojai Valley News and detail clearly inappropriate actions by the Mayor, including getting a recommendation from the opposing council suing the city on who to select as the attorney to represent the city. As former Ojai Mayor Carol Smith commented in the city council meeting on February 14th: “that’s like asking the farmer to ask the fox who do you recommend to guard my hen. It’s egregious.”
Rule’s desire to call out the clear conflict of interest in fiduciary responsibility should have been applauded by all. Instead, Lang, Whitman and Stix voted to keep her silenced. At the same time, Attorney Summers’ conduct has been called into question. In one example, in seeming to attempt to conceal what happened in that closed-door meeting, Summers spoke up to silence public comments by attorney, author, and playwright Robin Gerber , which allegedly violated her First Amendment rights during what is set aside as uninterrupted time for her to speak. In the spirit of accountability and transparency, as some have suggested, since Summers is provided to the city as part of a contract with an outside firm, perhaps it is time for that firm to replace him in this role to reduce bias and misperception in light of these allegations.
At the same time, Stix continues to manufacture claims, like public comments take too much time, as rationale for avoiding accountability. Lang claims publicly to want to meet with citizens, but has not responded to multiple requests I’ve made since October to discuss issues from sustainability to economic development with her, which does not breed trust. Whitman buys pastries in front of me in line at The Dutchess, the type of business operated by new transplants that he claims are ruining the town as he aims to rebuild an Ojai of the 1970s, which speaks to his integrity. For someone who ran on a kindness platform, exclaiming “you’re talking out of your ass” toward another city council member and then disputing that he apologized is perhaps further evidence. That is why the voters are comparing Ojai to Yellowstone, but the political theater has real consequences for Ojai’s citizens. The same is true anywhere that a lack of transparency prohibits trust.