An agenda for the new mayor and city council
“As goes the leadership of the top 100 cities, so goes the country’s economic future,” suggests Jim Clifton, Gallop CEO, in The Coming JOBS War. “Fixing America’s biggest problems and re-winning the world can only be accomplished one city at a time. A natural order is already present... cities have a self-organized, unelected group of talented people . . . call them local ‘tribal leaders.’”
Springfield may not quite be one of the top 100 cities, but we have hundreds of “tribal leaders” dedicated to improving Springfield, and they have larger networks and more access to other talented people than the local government does.
The new mayor and city council inherit a variety of challenges, actually serious problems, and will have to deal with most of them almost immediately. Effectively harnessing the energy and expertise of the many talented Springfield citizens is critical to the city’s success.
The management structure of CWLP certainly needs attention. The new mayor and city council should appoint a blue ribbon group of local citizens to assist in selecting a new utility manager, and also to provide some insight and direction on how other municipal utilities are managed. The effort should morph into a Citizens Utility Advisory Committee or even a quasi-independent Citizens Utility Board.
The regional sanitary district, one of the best in the country, and the city sewer service, slightly above third world, should be merged. While certainly a long-range effort, the county and city should establish a formal task group of experts and citizens to begin this important discussion.
Pretty much every significant city in the state has a city planner, but only one other city, Chicago, has an inspector general. If a city planner is to be established, however, there needs to be an intelligent and public conversation concerning the role of the position, and if the city would even follow a plan if there was one. The Springfield “shredgate” episode actually gives support to the proposal for a city inspector general. When unauthorized city employees changed a formal contractual agreement (signed by citizens’ elected representatives) and others shredded formally requested public documents, the U.S. attorney and state’s attorney showed little interest, the state police conducted their normal lengthy and incompetent investigation, and an entity no one ever heard of presented a one-page report on the eve of an election that said “no blood, no foul.” Certainly a city inspector general could have done no worse.
Leadership and commitment by the new mayor and city council is needed in many areas, but a focus on downtown is clearly important. There is convincing data that 500-1,000 downtown housing units would be filled if they were built. That would totally change the nature of downtown and the city for the better.
The normal response to suggestions that we could do a lot better in areas like tourism, the medical district, eastside development, beautifying streets, etc., is always lack of financial resources. The new mayor and city council should seriously look at all city expenditures, but especially the amount of money supporting the police department and the fire department. A small group of law enforcement experts and citizens should be convened for a few months to compare the number of police officers and budgets of several peer cities and Springfield. The 2008 Blue Ribbon Committee report, and more recent data, suggests that Springfield has 30-40 more police officers than other communities of similar size.
Comparisons are more complex and difficult for fire departments, but this would be an excellent time for an in-depth look at how the city handles fire protection and emergency/medical response. Our highly regarded fire department is now an obscenely expensive emergency/medical response group. It is critical that a group of citizens, along with appropriate experts, be asked to look at the current structure of the Springfield Fire Department and the budgetary demands. With emergency/medical calls about 95 percent of all calls, perhaps a review of how other communities are coping with this changing situation would be in order.
Committees and task groups are no substitute for strong and capable leadership by the mayor and city council, but they are indispensable in creating honest and transparent local government that thrives on local citizen involvement.
A city prospers simply by taking entrepreneurship, innovation and citizen involvement up a notch.
When local political leadership and local tribal leaders are aligned and focused, a city can become a beacon for development and will attract the most talented people in the world.
Actually, the future of Springfield demands it.
Bob Gray is president of the Citizens Club of Springfield. This article was sent to Citizens Club members las week under the heading “President’s Comments.”