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Among the chattering classes in Sacramento, the talk is all about the arcane subject of prison realignment. In 2011, the state Legislature rushed to embrace Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to move felons from state prisons to county jails.

Turns out there were complications. What a surprise.

We may need to revisit that decision, Brown said last week. In a private meeting, the Sacramento Bee reported, Brown blamed county governments for the problems caused by realignment. If you want to understand state government, you can begin with this: There's always someone else to blame.

In fits and starts, local governments in Sonoma County and elsewhere are trying to make sense of the unhappy but inexorable change in their fortunes.

Combine an economic recession, a changed economy, years of over-spending and public cynicism, and the outcome isn't difficult to predict: Government here and throughout California is contracting, and all the wishful thinking in the world will not change that.

What's needed, of course, is a broad-based conversation about how we can do the best we can with what we have. In a changed world, what can we afford? What's essential, and what isn't? This is what individuals do. Why not government?

Unfortunately, there is little enthusiasm for this conversation.

Except for moments of indignation that come too late to influence decision making, the electorate is indifferent. Just say the words — government reform — and people begin to nod off.

Meanwhile, the special interests most involved with government often want to pretend this conversation isn't necessary. Which means the officials those special interests helped to elect aren't eager to talk about change either.

What we know for sure is that, rational or random, state and local government will be required to make hard choices.

In a sense, the recent prison realignment represented a first stab at re-inventing government — albeit a decision made with too little discussion of the collateral damage. (In September, analysts for the Public Policy Institute of California warned, "California's county jails faced serious capacity constraints even before realignment began ...")

Rule of thumb: In good times, state government tells local governments how to conduct their business. In tough times, state government says, hey, school districts, cities and counties, it's your problem now.

In incremental and piecemeal ways, this conversation about reinventing government is occurring.

When the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last week agreed to reduce pay and pension packages for a shrinking county workforce, it was acknowledging a new economic reality.

When local agencies and nonprofits assumed responsibilities for state parks in danger of closing, they were acknowledging that old expectations no longer apply.

When the Golden Gate Bridge District Board of Directors decided to replace toll takers with electronic machines — beginning Wednesday — it was conceding the old ways of doing business are no longer affordable.

When state court officials proposed charging citizens $10 to view a public document, they were testifying to their desperation. (Whether they understand the meaning of open government is a separate question.)

When the Healdsburg City Council last week decided not to let a state fire agency assume responsibility for fire protection in the city, the council was deciding that this particular budget reform proposal didn't make sense for Healdsburg.

Councilman Jim Wood told Staff Writer Clark Mason that the thought of giving a state agency control of fire services in the city was "disconcerting."

Here was a polite word to describe the common anxiety that state government isn't always a reliable partner.

Still, Healdsburg Mayor Susan Jones acknowledged that when it comes to fire protection services, "regionalization is the way to go."

In various small ways, this kind of consolidation is occurring. Fire districts are joining forces. Small school districts are learning to share costs of many basic services. Two cities, Sonoma and Windsor, contract for police services from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office.

Among schools districts, cities and the county, there should be more discussions of how to share services and costs, cut red tape, reduce duplication and alleviate the worst impacts of the inevitable shrinking government. Do we need 40 school districts? Nine police agencies? Ten planning departments?

These discussions are never easy. They bump into community pride and institutional inertia. But local agencies are running out of other choices.

Common sense would dictate that state government would also be involved in these conversations.

Unfortunately, special interest politics often trumps common sense in state government — which means state government is both resistant to change and an unreliable partner when it comes to shared responsibilities.

On Thursday, a Public Policy Institute of California poll reported that 44 percent of Californians believe the state is headed in the right direction, and 48 percent believe it's headed in the wrong direction. While state residents can sense a turnaround in the private economy, they also know government continues to struggle.

Beginning now, the choice is between making sense of economic and technological change — or letting government shrink in haphazard ways that will leave a trail of unhappy consequences.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.