They can be found wherever public officials meet, buzzing around the heads of state and the body politic. No school board, planning commission or city council is immune to their sting.
They become so well-known at meetings that they sometimes grow to be perversely endearing to public officials--sort of like in-laws who always seem to show up at dinner time. For example, a Laguna Beach citizen who has honored the City Council with 241 consecutive appearances began his remarks at a recent meeting by complimenting the mayor on the condition of his mustache.
One longtime council-watcher in Anaheim was so regular in his attendance that a council member suggested attaching a bronze nameplate to the seat that the man always occupied.
A former Anaheim mayor remembers one elderly gentleman who used to sit in the front row in council chambers and fire spitballs at council members.
Then there was the woman in Newport Beach who battled the oil companies so often in public debate at council meetings that one company's lobbyist began picking her up on his way to the meetings.
In polite circles, they are known as "council-watchers" or "watchdogs." Behind closed doors of council chambers, they're probably more often referred to as "those !!$%$%!!" Whatever they're called, they are private citizens who share a belief that their efforts are bettering the state of participatory government.
For the past 10 years, Shirley Grindle has monitored a political campaign ordinance passed by the County Board of Supervisors. "They keep on their toes because they know I'm watching them," she says.
It is not that the board asked Grindle for her help, mind you. It's just that as a driving force behind the TINCUP (Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics) group that spawned the ordinance, Grindle says she wants to make sure that it is properly carried out. "I do it because I don't want to see all the efforts go to waste. If not monitored by someone like me, it wouldn't mean anything. There are not enough police or D.A.s to do what I do."
And it is not as though the San Clemente City Council asked Karoline Koester to come down to City Hall every week and go over their books. But she has done just that for the past 2 years, since being defeated for reelection to the council. She typically goes in on Friday and spends a couple of hours reviewing the city's expenditures.
"It's not my intention to annoy them," Koester said. "It's my intention to get the facts if I find reason or proof that there's something amiss that can be corrected. If that annoys people, perhaps they're not doing their work right."
Koester, 62, who served as a council member from 1979 to 1986, said that some officials probably resent her continued involvement. "Since I know the system like I do, they perhaps frown on my being as involved as I am. I've had that feeling from certain people--'You had your day in court, so it's best that you just go back and be a citizen.' Some people just think the public is there to pay their taxes, and the staff and city manager do the job."
Both Grindle and Koester disavow the "gadfly" designation, believing that it imputes a measure of frivolousness to their actions.
Margaret Leach of Santa Ana doesn't like that label, either. "Did someone call me a gadfly?" she wanted to know. She said she began attending council meetings in 1962 and now spends 2 or 3 hours a day studying city issues.
"Why wouldn't people be interested in the type of government they live under?" Leach wondered. "If someone is interested in government, why label them a gadfly or troublemaker or anything else?
"If people are so uninterested in their government, then at one time or another they're going to wonder why they are slaves or have fallen under a dictatorship, so if they pay attention to what's going on in government, then they will understand that maybe they are falling under a dictatorship. But if football and basketball games and all the gladiator sports are of more interest to them, then this government will fall."
It was suggested to her that some people find public meetings boring. "Some people like to go out and play golf, some like to keep their minds alert. Some people read novels. To me, reading about government is more interesting."
The "gadfly" designation doesn't bother Alan Adams of Laguna Beach, who in early April claimed a world record of 241 consecutive appearances by a citizen at a city council meeting. "The record continues to be broken again and again--by me," Adams said.
"I think I'm what they might call an itch they can't scratch," Adams said.
A Laguna Beach city official phrased it somewhat differently. "Alan is a pain in the butt," the official said.