Democracy only works from the bottom up. Unfortunately, there was a breakdown in this most basic of democratic principles at last week's City Council candidate forum.

The breakdown had nothing to do with the candidates, all of whom appear to be fine men. Nor did it have anything to do with the eloquent Peter Bachmann, the event moderator; or the five rainbow-sprinkled sugar cookies that disappeared before my very eyes.

What did go seriously awry was the review and rephrasing process built into the question-and-answer period. When it came to my query, the panel of three “parsers” turned a serious issue into a muddled mess. All within the rules, of course: “Questions may be consolidated or rephrased” was clearly displayed on the handouts.

My question pertained to the high cost of public-sector salaries and benefits and whether or not the candidates would be willing to look at cost-saving alternatives. Unfortunately, it has become politically incorrect to even mention that tens of thousands of state educators, department heads and public safety workers will soon be retiring on $100,000-plus, cost-of-living adjusted pensions with full healthcare benefits for life. Public-sector salaries and benefits are the real financial daggers aimed at our throats; that's where the real money is. If we do not immediately take steps to rein in these runaway costs, we will soon find ourselves being reigned over by bureaucrats who believe they can get away with anything because they have.

The question I submitted for the candidates was: “Public-sector salaries and benefits are becoming unaffordable. Would you support the establishment of a working group/standing committee to investigate the feasibility of a full or partial volunteer fire department (along the lines of Sierra Madre) and/or a private security patrol/traffic enforcement service to relieve the Sheriff's Department of routine law enforcement tasks?”

The three parsers turned this into: “Are there ways to relieve the Sheriff's Department of routine tasks?” Even I was puzzled by its intent, but it got me thinking.

Was it done intentionally? What about the other questions? Were they similarly censored? Have the public-sector employees (along with their political and administrative bosses) become so powerful that they now control the terms of debate in California? Is the relationship between La Cañada and the Los Angeles County Fire and Sheriff's departments so unyielding that La Cañada is afraid to investigate alternatives?

If we cannot afford our government, and become too timid to question it, we will soon find ourselves at the mercy of others. I urge all La Cañadans to not take undue comfort in the city's hard-earned $14-million budget surplus. Ten years of compounded salary and pension increases will wipe it out in the relative blink of an eye. This is not a legacy I wish to pass on to my children.

Our City Council members receive little in the way of direct compensation. Therefore, La Cañada is in a unique position to lead a vigorous debate throughout the San Gabriel Valley on public-sector wages and benefits, remembering always that civil servants work for us, not the other way around. The time to act is now — before our democracy gets turned upside down by a financial tsunami that Jerry Brown refuses to confront in any but the most politically facile of ways.

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ROBERT LANG is a La Cañada Flintridge resident. He can be reached at rlang2000@hotmail.com.