"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, November 13, 2015

Make It Safe, Clean It Up And They Will Come

Part IV:  Put People First; Business Will Follow

I’m not going to suggest a third priority for municipal governments.  The first two stand far above the other (very worthy, mind you) contenders for prioritization.  They deserve the spotlight.  No third priority is close enough to warrant being placed beside them.  They are basic needs, the foundation. 

Unfortunately, amid the press of business within municipal governments, that truth is often overlooked; they become just two of many things to do, and are given solely to a particular department to accomplish.  That’s wrong, particularly in regard to Cleaning It Up. 

Having made such a sweeping declaration, I must simultaneously acknowledge (again) how difficult it is to give the necessary focus, and attention, to the two top priorities.  I’ve mentioned a few reasons already, but a fundamental one is so obvious that it is too often overlooked: even the most important priorities tend to be obscured by the very volume of things a municipal government must do. 

In order to keep it simple, let’s divide those many things into two groups, things that MUST be done, and those that don’t but offer compelling arguments to do anyway.  The first category is larger than you might think, and it deserves being capitalized.  One of the discoveries every new member of a municipal council (or any other division of representative government, for that matter) quickly makes is how much time is taken up by things that not only must be done, they must be done in a rigidly determined manner.  A municipal government not only must do them, it must do them according to a schedule and standards that are entirely out of its control.  These required actions not only take up a great deal of time, but also represent a significant, and repetitive, drain on the energy of municipal government personnel. 

Let’s also keep in mind that municipal council members are decidedly part time; each must continue to retain an income source from outside.  This requirement imposes strict—if variable—limits on the amount of time a council member can actually allocate to the job.  Sadly, Norristown Pa., the specific subject of these quite general posts, recently experienced the consequences when a respected, hard-working council member lost that reliable income.  It is sad, and Norristown is the less for it, but the rules are the rules. 

The legal requirements of the job are rigid, and these days there is little room (and, with social media, even less cover) for the unfortunate situations, let alone the kind of shenanigans that used to be common in “the good old days.”*  Government is all about the handling of the people’s money by a selected few, who are accountable periodically to the people for how they performed that job.  That means following a carefully laid out, not to mention repetitive, series of actions at specified times; the laws are many but clear.  This all takes time and attention, because after all, we are talking about the people’s money here.

Despite the inevitability of their actions being subject to questions of motive, from different sides at different times, municipal council members tend to get sucked into their part-time job, giving little thought to how much they are making by the hour.  I have previously argued that people who run for an office such as municipal representative are givers, not takers.  Some have disagreed, and sharply.  That’s because the exception always stands out in one’s memory.  They certainly exist (I am personally aware of a few) but they are exceptions, and constitute a small minority of the total number who voluntarily seek out these kind of part time jobs.  I would also argue that overall, greater damage is done by the honest but misguided members of a municipal council pursuing what they thought was a good idea.  Any nominations for that category come to mind?  If you can’t think of any, you haven’t been paying attention; they just keeping happening, as the individual council members come and go.

That’s why it is so important to draw up a plan—a simple one, based on the two priorities—and then stick to it (I am not, obviously, referring to The Comprehensive Plan; that is an entirely different subject for another day).  Once a municipal council has set aside time—and money—to do those things that must be done when and how it must do them, then it’s time for the two-priority focus.  Adopt a security strategy of cooperation with the community, not confrontation.  Enforce your codes; be particularly harsh on yourself.  Spend what is necessary to achieve these two priorities (exercising financial responsibility of course, which in this discussion I take as assumed).  Then, with what time and energy you have left, consider those options that just seem to keep coming down the pike, from all directions.  But look upon them as gravy, not meat and potatoes.

When considering each and every optional activity and expenditure that appears, first subject it to a simple, two question test.  One, will it make the community more secure? Two, will it help to clean things up?  If the answer to either question is yes, then proceed, despite the priority you have already put on both, because what you are already doing can always be improved upon by new ideas, if they are the right ones.

If the answer to both questions is no, then subject each project in turn to this question:  Will this project require cutting back on anything—including time—we spend on achieving the two basic priorities?  If the answer is yes, then just say no to the project, regardless of how attractive it may seem (those projects that come attached to grants, and thus appear to be “free money” are particularly sexy, and hard to resist).

You do this until the first two priorities are largely achieved (again, you can’t please everyone), then watch what happens.  When word spreads of the clean, safe neighborhoods your town offers, at discount prices compared to those anywhere near around it, the rush will be on.  You won’t have to spend money to lure businesses to Main Street; like all businesses, they will follow the people, the market, and plans/good intention be damned.  Attempts to jumpstart or shortcut that process by government fiat do not have a high success rate.  Go back to the basics and put people first.  Much will then follow.

*If you want a sustained record of collective fiscal irresponsibility, I refer you to Norristown, Pa., in the early 1970s, as briefly described in my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls.

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