Marin Up Close

Let’s see if I can tell you something about Marin County you didn’t already know.

Our county was founded in 1850, one of California’s original 27 counties (there are now 58). Some say the name Marin comes from that of a Miwok chieftain who fought off both Mexican and U.S. military influences in the area. Others maintain it’s an abbreviation of Isla de Nuestra de Marinera, the name given a cove on San Pablo Bay in 1757. Many, myself included, assume “Marin” derives from marine, mariner or marina—an acknowledgment of our being surrounded on three sides by water. The reality is no one knows for sure.

Marin’s landmass is 520 square miles. Area-wise, we’re the third smallest of California’s 58 counties. As of July 1, 2007, the state Department of Finance pegged Marin’s population at 256,324. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates us (only a year earlier) at 248,742 souls. You choose.

You might find it interesting that approximately 80 percent of our population lives on 20 percent of our land, the result of the 1973 division of Marin into open space, agriculture, and city-centered corridors. Also intriguing: such established Marin entities as Kentfield, Point Reyes Station and Marin City are not cities at all. They are unincorporated areas and effectually governed by our county’s Board of Supervisors. Marin has 11 incorporated cities (Tiburon and Corte Madera insist on being labeled towns), the two largest being San Rafael (56,100) and Novato (47,600); the smallest (also possibly the wealthiest) are Ross (2,300) and Belvedere (2,200).

Of Marin’s total population of somewhere around 250,000, about 20 percent, or 50,000, are younger than 18, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That leaves 200,000 adults, of whom 140,991 are registered to vote. The county’s Registrar of Voters says our current political pie slices up like this: Democrats, 73,905 (52%); Republicans, 30,767 (22%); Independents or Decline to State, 29,149 (20%); and Green, Peace and Freedom, and Libertarian, the balance.

Interesting here is that for reasons unknown, Marin’s registered voters have declined by almost 6,000 over the past seven years. Also, the fastest-growing voter category is Independent or Decline to State. Further, that while the county’s voter turnout for the presidential race of 2004 was an impressive 89.5 percent, we slid to 74 percent for the 2006 gubernatorial contest, and then to a paltry (and telling) 35 percent for last November’s local elections.

Surely, something above caught you a bit by surprise. If not, try this: of Marin’s 200,000 adults, based on countywide observing and reporting, I maintain only two and a half percent, or at best 5,000 residents, get even reasonably involved in local affairs (aside from their children’s schooling), whether civic, environmental, or humanitarian issues are at stake.

The outside world may see us Marinites as politically active and aware, but when I’ve shared my observations with numerous local leaders—all who’ve been around Marin much longer than I have—I’ve never been contradicted. Most nod in agreement, adding, “I wish I knew why that is,” or, “I’d sure like to change that; we need more involvement.” As for the estimated 5,000 actively participating, I’d say half are environmentalists who want absolutely no more growth and no more traffic, and half are progressives who realize without some growth, economic and social stagnation soon set in.

In effect, this leaves 195,000 voting-age Marin residents watching a political ping-pong game, often relying on a catchy slogan, cocktail party conversation or activist friend or neighbor to help form their viewpoint. Can you offer insight as to why this condition exists? If you disagree with my analysis, what is yours?

Such tranquility would be acceptable, even ideal, if no critical issues were at hand. However that’s not the case in Marin. At present, we face the potential loss of Marin General Hospital due to political infighting, the diminishment of College of Marin due to a seeming inability to change, and intractable debates over workforce housing, affordable senior housing, and commuter traffic gridlock. And that list could easily be expanded. With a more engaged and concerned populace, Marin County would be far better equipped to deal with these oncoming challenges. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

E-mail jwood@marinmagazine.com