I Have to Ask: Rules of Engagement

Posted on March 15, 2020

Sarah O'Brien

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Sarah E. O’Brien, writes about the need to redefine the rules of engagement. 

When I said “the rules of engagement,” it was in reference to the way we serve our communities. We’ve been talking about things like breaking down silos, purpose and innovation, and fiscal sustainability for more budget cycles than I would like to admit. I am dismayed at the lack of progress. Old habits are hard to break, so let’s forget what we think we know and shift our mindsets. We need a lot less talk and immediate action.

Silo Shake Down

“Planning, economic development, tourism, public works, engineering, business.” Dwindling resources, stretched capacity, and urgent community needs far outweigh the impact that any of these functions can achieve alone. Individual and organizational priorities, resources, and frameworks of each community development function should no longer be acceptable to those working in #localgov.

Twenty years from now we won’t have the luxury of treating these important functions as individual departments or organizations with separate boards, policies, strategies, and funding sources. Collaboration, cooperation and strategic partnerships may have worked last millennium, but they are no longer adequate to serve us moving forward.

The time to discuss things like acquisitions, mergers, consolidation, dismantling and rebuilding of these functions is here. We can no longer ignore the messy, complicated, muddy waters that we all know exist but politically we won’t touch.  We must reform the way we operate, build, maintain and grow cities.

We are all city builders and community developers. But what we won’t admit to ourselves is that in order to be effective at what we do, so we can leave a brighter future tomorrow, we must first become mercenaries. We must destroy the structural framework and organizational processes today in order to build community and city development mechanisms that work for tomorrow Here’s a group that is working to bring some of these functions to the same table: www.citynationplace.org 

Purpose & Innovation

Congratulations to many of you who are driven by purpose and inspired by innovation. You are appreciated; however, I don’t believe that understanding your purpose and striving for innovation at City Hall is enough. We have to work together on a larger scale to serve a collective purpose and drive innovation that can move the needle. You see for all of you that are acing purpose and achieving innovation there are countless agencies that are not. I am going to go big here because that’s all I know how to do.

Let’s talk a moment about our federal government. I think we can all agree that the current electoral college and antiquated party system no longer serve a purpose, and they certainly have never been called innovative. Do you have an electoral college in your city? Do your candidates declare a party? They don’t work for us as leaders of our own democracies, but we seem to be complacent with what we’ve been given by the governments that serve us. Here we go casting our votes in primaries without speaking up about the inadequacies, inequality, and broken governmental system that is our election process.

How can we as local government leaders continue to stand by and serve our communities under such a broken and misrepresented foundation of our country’s democracy? I will leave the local control discussion and the power that we are yet to harness conversation alone for another day. Some are probably calling me crazy right about now, but I assure you I am just bat shit passionate and courageous to a fault. Your communities probably say the same about you.

So why don’t we use that passion and our role as leaders to affect much needed change elsewhere? Just imagine the possibilities with me for a moment; What would happen if ELGL could serve our communities in a much more connected and innovative way to change the rules of engagement? Who is ready to talk about local cities working together to affect change on the state and federal levels?

Fiscal Sustainability

In the spirit of full disclosure, I think economic development as we know it is dead. I know that traditional economic development is unsustainable. It won’t ride into town under the guise of a shining recruitment trip win with subsidies in tow to propel Anytown USA into blissful economic prosperity. Yet we keep shelling out subsidies and shrinking our tax bases. 

Cities are facing a crisis of epic proportion caused by aging infrastructure and tax revenues that do not cover the cost of services, causing fiscal vulnerability and unfunded liabilities. Yet we keep building new roads and funding treatment plant upgrades and – GASP – putting them in our asset columns. We have abandoned strip centers, vacant big-box parking lots, and only once lively downtowns dotted across our landscapes. Yet we keep allowing new construction along the highway.

Across the country, traditional efforts have also left us a surplus of cookie-cutter suburban homes that neither boomers or millennials can afford nor desire, yet we allow deep rooted sociological belief systems to prohibit a diversity of housing options.  We know we need more density and less sprawl. Incentives aren’t what bring businesses to town. We know you can’t build it and make them come. But every week headlines about multi-million-dollar complexes, jaw dropping incentive packages, cookie cutter subdivisions, and highway expansions come across our feeds. The only way to change our fiscal problem is to admit we have one, and most cities have yet to do so. Do you know your cities unfunded infrastructure maintenance liabilities? Neither does the recently released Truth in Accounting report regarding the financial state of cities. I think we owe the people and ourselves real transparency. 

I know it’s easy for me to step on the metaphorical pulpit from the outside of local political constraints. I don’t envy your positions, these are monumental undertakings, but if not you, then who will redefine the way we engage?

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