This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Community Governance - Third Path to City Government

Last month this blog featured posts on community governance, both from the perspective of governance through community, which involves community members coming together to deliberate and make decisions, and governance by community, which involves the means of implementing those decisions administratively.  These were admittedly idealistic states that needed to be strived toward.  How to achieve that will be one of the continuing focuses of this blog.  For this to happen requires a move away from current entrenched forms of closed city government to more open forms of community governance.

The two common major styles of city government found today, strong-mayor and council-manager, were featured in two articles, which appeared during the same month in the Washington Examiner, contrasting the supposed strengths of each.   

The first article by Stephen D. Eide, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership, is “Manhattan Moment: Only politicians can save us now” and the other is “In defense of city managers” which Robert J. O'Neill, Jr., the Executive Director of the International City/County Management Association wrote in response.  

Eide explains that under a council-manager form of government, a professional administrator runs the city government. He or she is, however, not elected by voters but appointed by a city council.  Under the strong-mayor government, the mayor, is elected by the people and directs the city's administration while serving as the city's political head.  

As can be deduced from the titles of the two articles, Eide makes the case that communities have come to depend too much on professional administrative staff and that they would be better off if they would instead turn to politicians to overcome the challenges that they face. O’Neill takes the opposite tact coming to the defense of city managers and other public sector administrators by warning “that pitting strong political leadership against professional local government management as a solution is misguided”. 

Eide makes the argument that when a crisis does arise, “political leadership is needed much more than professional expertise”.  Eide points out “Mayors can make case for their vision directly to the public, through elections and initiativesCity managers' capacity for political leadership is limited. They can't offend the elected officials who act as their bosses”.  

O’Neill asserts that what is of prime importance is “efficiency of administration” using as the basis for his counter argument the article "Smarter, Faster, Cheaper," by David Edwards who reported that “what determines how efficiently a city deploys resources is management, and that communities with the council-manager form of government are nearly 10 percent more efficient than those with strong mayoral forms of government”.

The real crux of the argument for Eide is a desire to address what Eide calls the “fiscal and administrative inflexibility caused by unreasonable union contracts and the unsustainable costs of public-employee benefits”The solution according to Eide is to follow the example of San Diego that with the support of a 2/3 voter majority passed Proposition B which was designed to eliminate defined-benefit pensions for all new nonpublic safety employees and save taxpayers nearly $1 billionAccording to Eide, the San Diego passage of Proposition B could not have happened if the change from council-manager to strong-mayor had not been made.  

This is not meant however to be an argument as to whether this is fair or not or whether it is the proper course of action as it is seen as being unavoidable.  This trend, as will be discussed in future posts, will continue changing the nature of public sector employment.  

What is being questioned is whether people could have the type of communities that they can imagine if they were fully empowered with the necessary resources and not turned off or discouraged from community participation? 

Eide focuses on a single policy decision, cutting public sector employee overall compensation and argues that it is better to bet on politicians to get the public to buy into it than to bet on public administrators to get the policy implemented.  

It does not, however, do anything to directly address his concern that “budgets are rising, but productivity and the quality of city services are not”The primary driver of community governance becomes a matter of cost rather than of value. Residents are defined as consumers of government services not as citizens.  Seeking better quality service through only cost cutting without finding means of enhancing those services through new means of innovation simply results in commodification where less is done with less and community needs go unmet. Draconian measures maybe possible under a political fix, such as finding ways to cut costs by reducing overall public sector employment compensation but they do not address issues of continued sustainable community governance.  What can happen instead is a constant winner take all pendulum swing from one side to the other or the disenfranchisement of a portion of the community.  

Eide and O’Neill may both distinguish between politics and administration, giving each a different level of primacy, but both fail to make a distinction for the creation of a community vision and setting of policy to implement that vision which is different from using a political approach to decide among policy choices and from the administration of that policy.    

One approach focuses on the effectiveness of politically motivated measures without much regard made for what happens after they are implemented as long as the correct position of  political power is taken and the other approach focuses on the efficiency of administration without much regard made to how effective the policy in question may be.  Each seemingly leaves the other side of that equation to the its counterpart.  Both could claim to have the best of intentions in mind but still assign only a passive role to the community which is either to be sold to or managed.  Both systems of government focus more of their energy into making sure the current system and its players stay in place than addressing the needs of the community. 

With regards to professional staff, I can agree that we should resist what Eide calls the urge to "trust the experts", at least not to trust them indiscriminately.  I can’t agree though that only politicians, whom Eide himself admits are to blame for much of the trouble American cities are in today, are the only ones that can save us now.  A guiding principle of new community paradigms is that not only should a more substantial role be taken on by the community itself, it is also now more possible than ever before.

Eide claim that the professional is not as accountable to the populous as the politician also falls flat, as it is the politicians who appoint the administrators with the power to fire them and even though residents only get to hold the politicians accountable every four years.  
The framework O’Neill suggests for our cities to be successful does begin to meet a new community paradigms standard though with a change in emphasis to focus first on:
  • A strategy for representing and engaging every segment of the community
  • A commitment to transparent and ethical government 
A new community paradigms approach still recognizes the importance of:
  • Strong political community leadership 
  • Strong policy development
  • A relentless focus on execution and results
O’Neill says that, “Under any form, the citizenry must be involved in their local governments and select the best possible local elected officials possible. “  No argument as far as it goes but, new community paradigms asserts that we now have the ability to go even further and have a more direct say in real time about how our communities are formed and developed through direct community governance. 

Past Posts