We need to talk. No, really, we need to talk! I don’t know about you, but anytime I heard this I thought I was probably in trouble. Well, I AM in trouble. So are you. So are we all. Up one side and down the other “Ya Got Trouble,” and it stands for “T” that rhymes with “P” but in this instance, “P” doesn’t stand for pool. It stands for pandemic and yes, it’s “Right Here in River City.” Too bad it’s not just the concoction of Professor Harold Hill, you know the swindling traveling salesman in the Music Man.[i] No I’m just punning you, but it probably is an appropriate play on words on various levels.
For this conversation, River City is the representation of every municipality in California. Collectively, they all got real trouble to the tune of $7 billion in projected loss revenue. Those in the profession of local governance know the numbers or at least they better. Lay-offs, furloughs, cuts in pay and services are all on the table. It’s the re-release, the extended edition, the Directors Cut, of the now thirteen-year old drama: “The Great Recession.” Only now, it comes with newly added scenes pertaining to disease and its societal changing appurtenances. What are we to do? What’s a city to do? What can a city do? Where do we even start?
Go into “Crisis” mode what else? It’s a hard-wired involuntary response. It’s in the genes. It’s the result of our training. The police and fire codes fill the airways. Assemble the army, clear the decks for action. For the PD It’s a Code 10 (SWAT pre-call up). For the FD It’s also a Code 10 (Critical Trauma Case). The city’s management team creates a budgetary war room. Community information outreach sessions are scheduled. Elected officials hit the conventional and social media platforms. Believe me, I’m not trying to trivialize the actions of those that serve others. To the contrary, I’m pointing out their readiness as public servants. In our natural rush to address a clear and present danger our strengths and weaknesses are exposed for all to see, especially between the haves and have-nots. This may be argued to be especially true when the contemporary danger itself is not particularly clear. As a result, the adequacy of the response is equally unclear. On average, it can be even further argued that we deal with symptoms and not causations. After all, they are easier to identify and theoretically easier to treat. Take two aspirin, drink plenty of liquids and call me in the morning. Unfortunately, building bigger and better levies around New Orleans and Galveston will not stop sea rise caused by the melting of the polar caps. So called economic development efforts that focus on retail attraction that provides minimum wage part-time employment does little to stabilize the financial well-being of the community.
At the end of the day what is needed is a true assessment of local governments’ structural integrity. Like the deterioration of the nation’s roads, bridges and waterworks, municipalities have been gradually hollowed out: politically, fiscally, and civically, from both internal and external sources. Our accumulated cognitive beliefs and biases, resistances to change, antiquated formal structures, outdated assumptions, notions of entitlement, short-term horizons, and the weakened relationship between government and the governed have all come home to roost. Dialogue driven by distrust, fear, the sense of privilege, self-righteous indignation, and the preservation of existing power bases intercedes all too often. For some, there will be no more kicking the greater systemic issues down the road, no more cushioning the fall in the post Proposition 13 era.
Those with greater resources will more than likely continue along their same old familiar paths. They may adopt new procedural, managerial and leadership methods and receive professional recognition and awards for best practices. But the bigger question would still remain? Are these new adoptions meant to fine tune and effectuate the preservation of existing systems, or are they to be utilized with the notion of building a better mouse trap altogether? For some, success will be measured in terms of alleviating, or at least reducing, the transient symptoms of the crisis of the time. The greater issues facing local governance is usually perceived to be just too big or politically infeasible to address. Even the following short-list usually is dismissed or ignored for a myriad of reasons.
- Re-balancing the community’s needs for direct democracy with our republican (representative) form of government
- Deciding which sectors of society are best equipped in providing the traditional generic definition of public services
- Community based volunteers
- Reducing local fiscal volatility by expanding the sources of revenue available to local government including:
- Federal and State revenue sharing (Hardly a new concept)
- Encouraging competition by measuring the qualitative characteristics of communities and the local economy and not just through the zero-sum game of increasing the tax base through retail attraction and hospitality
- Focusing on the size and structure of local government itself—When is big too big? When is small too small?
Academics discuss these issues. Public policy wanks do the same. Those in the trenches, the politicians, the professionals, the so-called leaders of the community, not as much. Out of necessity, they are dealing with the here and now. Their focus is usually on the more manageable issues, even those that are sometimes blown out of proportion, that provide those short-term, apparently tangible, political and fiscal returns on investment. It would seem that this needed but also myopic line of thinking will incrementally catch up. This current challenge, this pandemic crisis, may provide the impetus for serious change, or at least, an honest assessment, a reprioritization of how we govern our affairs at all levels of government.
We seem to be easily distracted, not to discount the severity of any real crisis. Fortunately, local government has a broad base of capable, well intentioned individuals wanting to do good and fight evil. They just need to be working on causations and not just symptoms.
So, does it take a pandemic to change? Are we ready? Maybe a 12-step program for all of us is in order. Otherwise we may be back with Professor Hill. Better yet, maybe the Professor can channel his leadership skills and focus on real troubles.
“Now Marce, I need some ideas if I’m going to get your town out of the serious trouble it’s in.” Professor Harold Hill
“River City ain’t in any trouble.” Marcellus Washburn
“Then I have to create some.” Professor Harold Hill
[i] For those too young to know, or those looking for a light-hearted trip down memory lane, you can rent the 1962 version of “The Music Man” from Amazon Prime Video for $1.99. (On backorder for $11.21 from Turner Classic Movies)