America is a politically divided nation.
But there’s a few things Americans agree on when it comes to the federal government.
It can’t be trusted. It’s wasteful. And it’s led by people who say and do anything to get elected and then abandon those promises to serve special interests.
Is the same dynamic infecting local government as well?
A new study by NYU Professor Paul Light, a recognized expert on public service, said almost 70 percent of Americans say the government needs major reform, even though there is a wide divide on what needs to be done and how to get there.
As an old political science major, I find the study interesting. But our paper focuses local issues and so I always try to view findings through that prism. Does this national trend threaten the reputation and trustworthiness of local government?
About a decade ago, I was part of a small group of local mayors who founded the Florida League of Mayors. It was an offshoot of the Florida League of Cities and the organization tried to capitalize on surveys at the time that found Floridians had enormous trust in local government and that mayors especially had the confidence of citizens.
People might have been wary of Tallahassee and may have been disgusted by Washington but they liked their local governments.
Trust and confidence in your City Hall is an often underrated asset.
And it works both ways: citizens obviously win when they have faith that their tax dollars are being spent wisely and that their local officials can solve problems and seize opportunities. And those who work in local government win too when their citizens support and trust them. They can safely innovate and they can feel confident that their citizens support them in what can be very difficult jobs.
There was a time when Delray stood out in this regard. A time when over a thousand citizens volunteered for the Police Department, raised money for public safety budgets, voted to go into debt and raise their taxes to fund community projects and generally felt that City Hall was an agent of progress, a place where problems were solved and where you could find answers and support.
City staff was outcome oriented and not mired in process. Things got done: Small things–kitchen permits, sea grape maintenance, leases for key non-profits like Old School Square and the Historic Society.
Big things got done as well–the Decade of Excellence, the creation of a Community Land Trust, the adoption of a Downtown Master Plan and more.
How do big and small things happen? What makes progress possible?
In a word: culture.
Not the kind that might describe art and music, but rather the kind that allows for collaboration, creativity, compromise, compassion, civility and empathy.
A good culture is built on trust and accountability–those two words are not mutually exclusive. You can have both.
When you have a good culture in your town, there are no limits to what can be accomplished.
The best leaders I have seen empower people. And the best outcome you get from a culture of empowerment is confidence and momentum.
Positive momentum is immensely powerful. It creates special cities. When you believe in what your doing and you have the confidence to venture great leaps occur.
I started writing about Delray Beach in 1987. I hear many people around town comparing this era to the 80s. It’s not a good comp as they say in real estate. Some say the level of dysfunction and rancor among commissioners is comparable to that era. Some say it’s not as bad, some say it’s worse.
My take: the 80s were rough here, marked by crime, drugs, blight, instability at City Hall and racial tension.
But some big things got started. Some important seeds were planted. The first historic districts, the launch of Old School Square, the creation of a CRA, a major effort to improve local schools, the seeds of Pineapple Grove, Visions 2000 and the Decade of Excellence.
Pretty great stuff. And yet…what do people remember as much as the achievements? They remember the revolving door of managers and department heads, the backbiting among elected officials and the sense that other places were thriving and we were stuck.
And then it changed.
The culture that is…a new crop of commissioners and a new mayor were elected, stability returned–civility too. Progress happened and Delray was on its way.
Delray developed a brand as an innovative city, a pacesetter, a good place to work, a good place to live and a good place to invest. Fun, vibrant and entrepreneurial were among the words often used and bus loads of people from other cities came here to see how “it” was done.
So what’s the buzz now?
Citizens suing the commission over a charter violation because warring elected officials cannot compromise.
A revolving door of managers and department heads.
Major private investments delayed, pronounced dead or in costly litigation.
Residents complaining about a toxic culture and how hard it is to volunteer in this city. Yep, how hard it is to volunteer in this city because of a culture of toxic politics on the commission.
2017 is a New Year and a chance to turn things around. It can be done.
We’ve done it before. If we do, we will solve problems and seize opportunities. If we don’t, we risk 30 years of progress and more important –our future.
It’s time for a change. If you love Delray as many of us do, it’s time to get moving. We stand for what we tolerate. And right now we are tolerating a whole lot of nonsense.
America is a politically divided nation.