Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Detwiler believes in government as force for the public good


Peter Detwiler

Alum, wife support Penniman fund

As Peter Detwiler reflects on his career and plans his next lecture for his Sacramento State students, Clara Penniman comes to mind. The young Californian found her advice and patience to be invaluable as he adjusted to life on a large campus in the Midwest. "She was generous with her time and attention, and she provided a sympathetic ear when I was searching for my professional direction," Detwiler says.

A nationally prominent scholar of taxation and public finance, Penniman started the University of Wisconsin's Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration in the late 1960s and served as its first director. The center grew into the La Follette School of Public Affairs. She passed away in 2009.

Although Detwiler spent only a year in Madison, the lessons he learned about public policy, the approaches to land-use and urban problems, and the concept of public service all resonated in his teaching and in his work at the California Capitol. He appreciates how the former Center for the Study of Public Policy & Administration helped to launch his career.

In recognition of what he learned and the mentoring he received from Penniman, Detwiler and his wife, Carrie, have made donations to the scholarship fund Penniman established at the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

"The University of Wisconsin (and Wisconsin's taxpayers) were generous to me 40 years ago," Peter Detwiler says. "By waiving the out-of-state tuition and by providing me with modest monthly stipends, I could afford a first-rate master's degree. What better way to honor Clara Penniman's memory than by donating giving back to the University in her name?"

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Lawmakers in California can thank Peter Detwiler's experience in Wisconsin for the easy-to-read legislative analyses he prepared for them to summarize what a proposed statute would do, why it was needed, its cost, why certain interests opposed or supported it, and the bill's legislative history.

Detwiler retired in September after 39 years of public service that began in 1972 right after he graduated from the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He spent 29 years as a policy staffer for the California State Senate's Governance and Finance Committee, a recent combination of the Revenue and Taxation Committee and the Local Government Committee. Detwiler started working for the latter as its chief consultant in 1982.

"I researched bill ideas, drafted legislation, analyzed bills, proposed amendments and gave policy advice to the committee chair and members," Detwiler says. "The best description of the committee's policy jurisdiction is 'dirt, dollars and duties,' or more formally: land-use planning and decision-making (dirt); public finance, including taxes, assessments, fees, bonds (dollars); and the structures and processes of local governments (duties). I've worked for both Republican and Democratic committee chairs and tried to avoid the nasty partisan battles when analyzing policy issues."

When he announced his retirement, Detwiler's efforts to be neutral drew him praise from Sacramento journalists. "Consultants who prepare analyses are crucial to the integrity and effectiveness of lawmaking in California," Sacramento Bee writer Ginger Rutland wrote in an editorial. "Peter Detwiler was one of the best, a legend in fact. His analyses were always thorough, well-written and entertaining. Most important, Detwiler pulled no punches."

Detwiler spent a year in Wisconsin in 1971-1972 after he graduated from St. Mary's College of California. "My undergrad advisors counseled me to leave California in order to find a better perspective, but they didn't warn me about the Wisconsin weather," Detwiler says. "I arrived in Madison with a strong interest in metropolitan and regional affairs. With Professor Clara Penniman's guidance, I picked elective courses that let me follow that interest — urban and regional planning, social welfare and economics. Those courses — and the weather — launched me back into state and local government here in California."

The center's curriculum was not as quantitative as it is now, but the emphasis on clear writing and critical thinking was just as great. "My master's classes honed my critical skills in reading, writing and oral presentation," Detwiler says. "The La Follette program is stronger and more demanding than the requirements of the early 1970s and the former Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration. Watching La Follette School alumni's achievements convinces me that the School has helped its alumni perform at very senior levels."

Detwiler has been sharing his experience by teaching public affairs at Sacramento State, which, in turn, shaped his approach to his legislative work. "My teaching forced me to be more thoughtful about the rough-and-tumble world of legislative affairs," he says. "I was able to find patterns and broader explanations for my daily work."

He is continuing to teach. "My grad students in the California Land Use Policy course value my practitioner's point-of-view," he says. "University teaching is very satisfying when former students greet me and volunteer that something they read or something I showed them helped them to solve problems. I'm pretty fierce when it comes to clear writing, so that's helped them too. I've been able to translate complex concepts into themes that busy legislators can use. And I've enjoyed sharing that skill with my students."

At the Capitol in Sacramento, Detwiler wrestled with the changes wrought by California voters in several initiatives that resulted in amendments to the California Constitution. "Proposition 13 (1978) fundamentally altered the state-local fiscal relationship because it rewrote our property tax system," Detwiler says. "Much of my analytical work during the 1980s and 1990s involved trying to make sense out of the property tax system that had become a zero-sum game. Proposition 218 (1996) placed additional constitutional limits on how local officials can raise revenue with taxes, assessments and fees. We're still sorting out that one!"

He also led six projects to rewrite basic statutes that govern two-thirds of California's special districts that deliver services to suburban and rural communities: water, sewer, fire protection, parks, pest abatement, cemeteries and public utilities. "It wasn't politically sexy, but those bills changed the way that local officials serve their communities," Detwiler says.

Detwiler attributes his long career in public service to his parents. His mother was a teacher and his father was a county public health inspector. "Dad knew that his work protected real people from real health problems," Detwiler says. "I followed the public service challenge because I was (and still am) profoundly convinced that government can be (and should be) a force for good in people's lives. "I was in junior high school when President Kennedy's 1961 inaugural speech challenged us to 'ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.' Powerful stuff to a teenager. I believed it then; I believe it still.

"Of course, the bitter irony is that I finished at UW (June 1972) the same month as Richard Nixon's Watergate break-in. LBJ's escalation of the Vietnam War plus Nixon's cover-up eroded public confidence in all public officials," Detwiler adds. "In a sense, my career from 1972 to 2011 has been more difficult because we broke the trust relationship between those who govern and real Americans."

Re-establishing public trust through service has been at the forefront of Detwiler's career, from interpreting bills to legislators to urging students to refine their writing. "My first job after leaving Wisconsin was for a local regulatory commission in San Diego County, and our offices were in the county administration building," Detwiler says. "If you entered from the western side, there was a saying above the portal that read 'The Noblest Motive is the Public Good.' And over the eastern entrance, the slogan read 'Good Government Demands the Intelligent Interest of Every Citizen.' So, when you walked into the main lobby, you were literally between those two admonitions.

"Successful public management and leadership are found between those two concepts. All public officials — elected, appointed, civil service — must always struggle to find the public good. And everyone has a civic obligation to pay attention to the public's business. We fail when either or both parties forget their duties to one another. Whether you're about to graduate from La Follette and take on public responsibility or whether you're in the middle of your career and tempted by discouragement, you should constantly remind yourself about the noble motives and about the civic duties."

In the News

Editorial Notebook: A behind-the-scenes legend at the Capitol, September 10, 2011, Sacramento Bee