Sunday, August 2, 2009

Stimulating Conditions

Let me make a simple prediction: After all is said and done and we have spent a trillion dollars authorized by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as stimulus money, we will not know whether it recovered our economy. What we will know is that our public debt will be one of the highest in our history and remain with us for decades to come. (Let's just hope China remains a willing investor, economic partner, and political ally).

Let's take a look closer at how stimulus spending affects our city government. A case in point is the latest recommendations by the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) committee to fund local projects (legislative file 15482) with federal stimulus money. Unlike past requests for proposals (RFP) from CDBG, this time for-profit companies were eligible to apply based on the written guidelines issued by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

As a result the City received one application from a for-profit company, the Higher Ground Urban Farm, Inc. (HGUF). Its mission is to grow food sustainably in a protected greenhouse environment on Madison's Northside utilizing renewable energy resources.

HGUF is a newly created company with apparently no active operations, employees, or physical location yet. While it has a tentative agreement with a local property owner, I learned that the exact location on the proposed premise will not happen until the end of August, 2009. Furthermore, the company plans to hire three to four local minorities and train them in greenhouse agriculture.

Yet, according to their financial projections that I received as a City Council member on July 9, 2009, their projected gross sales for November 2009 is $17,500 and for December $28,000. Are we to conclude that within three months this business will sign a lease, build a green house, hire and train staff, set up all the typical business operations, line up customers, and sell agricultural goods in excess of $17,000 per month?

All this during economic times when small businesses are defaulting in higher numbers in Madison and across the country according to an article in the Wisconsin State Journal on July 27, 2009.

At the last Board of Estimates meeting several Council members had concerns about this application and decided to send it back to the CDBG committee. I trust they will share their concerns at the upcoming Council meeting where the CDBG recommendations for funding will be on the agenda.

Though I have written many business proformas and worked with investors and banks to secure private financing, I do not have the knowledge to evaluate the feasibility of this particular business without more market research. At the same I feel compelled to raise the question whether this project is ripe, or in Council's language, soup to receive a $53,000 grant and a $53,000 loan at zero percent interest. HGUF is, after all, a start-up company with no track record.

Therefore, I went to the last CDBG meeting with the hope committee members would consider adding a job creation claw-back clause. My thinking is that since job creation is one of the primary reasons for stimulus money, perhaps we could impose a condition that HGUF should retain three full-time employees for two years for receiving $106,000 taxpayer money. I recommended that if HGUF does, they would receive the $53k grant and $53k loan as recommended by CDBG in a previous meeting. If they wouldn't, the $53k grant would become a loan and we could leverage the loan repayments for other projects in the future. In either scenario the taxpayer would be protected while providing an opportunity for a local entrepreneur to start a new business. Sort of a win-win situation. Right?

Was I ever so wrong to assume that committee members would find the two-year job condition to be reasonable in light of the concerns with this particular application. They, including alders who typically advocate for job creation claw-backs in other city policy areas (such as Tax Incremental Financing), decided against any additional conditions. Instead I got the impression that the CDBG committee was eager to award money to a for-profit company to counter long-standing criticism that CDBG money goes only to not-for-profits.

Incidentally, I also learned that HUD counts job creation as of the date employees are hired regardless of how long these jobs exist. Isn't this classical bean counting to meet politically-driven quotas? HUD officials can report to Congress and the White House that stimulus money has created x-amount of jobs regardless of whether they are sustainable after taxpayer money has been spent. Mission Accomplished, right?

Public decisions to spend money in the private sector are common. But stimulus spending may be somewhat of a different animal. At the national level political careers depend on producing results to claim a quick victory. At the local level, staff and committee members, who experience the constraints of inadequate resources frequently, may feel a sudden delight in spending other people's money (OPM) to help our communities. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, there is considerable pressure to release stimulus money as quickly as possible. When these dynamics converge chic trend-du-jour projects or well-written but perhaps overpromising applications could easily get stimulus money.

In instances where there are serious questions about sustainable outcomes and unsubstantiated claims, let's not gamble with taxpayer money. Let's be certain we get what we pay for. Because CDBG committee members and local officials come and go, their decisions are easily forgotten. And since most citizens do not have the time and resources to track the outcomes of the many promises made, accountability is minimal.

Multiply these decisions taking place by the thousands, if not millions in local communities all across the country and a disturbing picture emerges. Could we be creating a "Great Corporate Welfare Society" in the process? Yet, in a few years the public will hear the many accolades of how great the stimulus effect has been on our economy. While there may be some truth in them, remember the Feds are not shy to base results on sanitized data derived from meaningless bean counting. If we are going to incur great public debt, we owe it to ourselves to get the greatest value for the public good.

I recommend we impose reasonable conditions on all projects whenever necessary to guarantee the outcomes that are stated in the business proposals. In my first term I requested conditions on the proposed Mallards project to prevent the City and taxpayers from future financial liability. Given the downturn in the economy, the Mallards ended up having difficult times obtaining financing. On a broader level, it seems we need to review our funding criteria more carefully and create guidelines or policies for city committees that are involved in disbursing public money.

The role of a Council member is to advocate for and protect the public's interest. I will certainly be scrutinizing RFPs, funding recommendations, and decisions by CDBG more closely now that stimulus money (OPM) is hitting the local scene. I hope the public will, too. Otherwise my prediction may come true in Madison!

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the owner of Higher Ground Urban Farming is a constituent of mine. She owns a successful business and volunteers in our community. She has all the indications of a caring entrepreneur with a social conscience. My comments should not be construed as a criticism of her and her dreams, of urban agriculture, or the local food movement. I wish the owner of HGUF all the best in achieving her business goals.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

We Shall Overcome Some Day

Madison has evolved into a "strong mayor - weak Council" model. Therefore, when Paul Soglin states that "Madison, like most Wisconsin cities has a weak mayor, strong council form of government," I take into account that he is a former mayor who experienced most of public life as the "chief executive."

The deliberate as well as unconscious bias for strong, executive leadership is part of our culture. In my years of executive coaching and organization development, I haven't come across a single executive who started off by saying "I have too much power, I want less, please help." Rather I see executives struggle with their desire to enhance their powers and use them more effectively. After all, we look towards such executives for charismatic, visionary leadership to get the job done. It doesn't come natural to us to share or give up power.

That is why leadership structures in public life, unlike in most corporate settings, place so much deliberate emphasis on checks and balances and separation of power.

Let's look at a some facts. The 2003 adopted budgets for the Council office was $82,767 and for the mayor's office $619,804. Since these numbers don't include the salaries of alders, let's take the mayor's $102,631 annual salary for 2003 out of the equation to compare the two budgets more accurately. Now we are talking about $82,767 for the Council office compared to $517,173 for the mayor's office.

By 2009, the adopted budget for the Council office increased to $97,439 and the mayor's office to $802,708 (with his salary it was $915,589). Percentage wise this is a 15% increase for the Council and a 35.5% increase in the mayor's office. During the same time the mayor's staff grew from 10 to 12 positions whereas the Council staff remained at two serving 20 alders. Incidentally, the salaries for all 20 alders combined were $138,433 in 2003 and $145,950 in 2009, representing a 5.15% increase.

Another fact is that the mayor hires and supervises all department heads. He or she has the authority to direct staff to implement policies and conduct research. Alders neither have such authority nor access to research. For the most part we rely on our own resources, labor, and wits. Alders may ask for information from staff, and depending on their personal relationships and longevity in office, do receive assistance from staff and the mayor's office. But for insiders it's common knowledge that a mayor can quietly block or delay such requests. It's not unheard of that mayors have had standing orders to stall informational requests from alders. Thus the only formal, legal requests that alders have at their disposal is to pass a resolution to initiate staff reports or use FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests like any citizen would.

To be fair, Council staff do assist alders with their legislative duties. But when you do the math (two full-time staff equals 80 hours of staff time per week divided by twenty alders) each alder receives about 4 hours of staff support per week at best.

The mayor also develops the operating and capital budgets with prior input from department heads, boards, and alders of his or her choosing. There is no legal obligation to involve Council until it reaches the Board of Estimates and the full Council. By then many decisions are foregone conclusions.

Put all this all together and what do you see? A strong-mayor governance model! So you might say "what's wrong with this?" Well, for starters, there is a growing body of research identifying "legislative leadership" (diffused, shared, collaborative, etc.) as being more apt to handle complexity. Another reason is that a "strong-mayor" model creates a dependency on one individual thus amplifying his or her strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, perhaps it is time for the Council to become a stronger partner by assuming, for example, the authority to appoint alders to city committees.

Paul Soglin is right when he concludes that the "strutural components of governemnt are inter-related. When changing one, the others need examinaztion [sic]." The Council appointing alders to city committees is just one of many changes that should be evaluated. In a previous blog entry I mentioned that hiring a City Administrator is another structural improvement. I also advocate for Council leadership to exercise its newly adopted authority to set-up Council committees where alders serve as peers. Such a venue allows alders to collaboratively shape City policy. It is also an opportunity for alders to develop relationships (the social fabric) that overcome or mitigate ideological divides.

Finally, Council participation in appointing citizens to city committees needs to be reconsidered as well. For example, the Council and the mayor could have equal number of citizen appointments on each city committee. Or, as a transitional solution, the mayor retains the right to appoint citizens during the first ninety days of a vacancy but relinquishes such authority to the Council should no appointment occur during that time window. I am sure there are more iterations.

The point is that with greater authority comes greater responsibility and accountability. The Council, as a group of twenty individuals, would begin to develop a stronger identity. I suppose the Council, like all of us, needs to learn how to fish rather than wait for the daily catch (or bait) from the mayor's office.

Bottom line - alders are in direct, daily contact with constituencies. Why not give Madisonians greater influence over policy making by creating a stronger legislative body? Why not create the organizational conditions for a Council to become more effective? And why not create a stronger check and balance between the branches to allow for more rigorous debate? Isn't this the spirit of a progressive democracy?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Legislative Affair

From Mobile, Alabama, to Las Vegas, Nevada, from Key West, Florida, to Portland, Orgeon, appointments to city committees occur mainly through the legislative body, whether they are called city alders, council members, or commissioners. In Madison, however, citizens and alders are appointed by the mayor and approved by the Common Council. Alders do not have the authority to appoint residents or their fellow alders to city committees. The only exception is the Common Council Organizational Committee, whose membership is appointed by the presiding Common Council president. Is it time we re-evaluate this pratice? I suggest yes!

In recent times some Madison residents have questioned whether the Council is too accommodating to the executive branch. Equally some alders have experienced the frustration of not being (re) appointed to committees and may have concluded that if a mayor "likes" or agrees with the political views of alders and residents, they get their choice appointments. However, until we change this practice, a mayor has the right to make such decisions while the Council only has the right to deny confirmation. Consequently, critizing an incumbent mayor of merely exercising his/her authority makes little sense.

By the way, when I talk about the mayor and Council leadership, I am referring to them as positions rather than to the particular individuals currently holding office. For purpose of disclosure, I serve on over ten committees and have done well under the current system. I have no particular ax to grind. But I do believe the current appointment process needs fixing.

Let's start with alder appointments to city committees (I'll share my thoughts on citizen appointments in a future blog). Neither governors nor presidents appoint members of the legislative branch to committees because the prevailing logic of separation of power is an important aspect to preserving a vibrant democracy. Why should this be any different at the local level where the proximity between elected officials and their constituents is the closest? Alders are elected to the Council to work on policies, which takes primarily place in our many city committees.

Alder assignments on committees are, therefore, a critical piece of implementing the will of the people. Why would a legislative body not want to be involved in determining which of their members serve on what committees? Instead we have a peculiar set-up where alders are elected and then "told" by a mayor on which committee they will serve. Granted, we are asked for our preferences, and I'm confident each mayor is mindful of these preferences and the respective professional experiences of the alders. But that's really neither here nor there. The point is that the paternalistic nature of committee assignments interfere with the purpose of a legislative body. It creates too much dependency on the political agenda of a mayor and reduces the necessary checks and balances needed to keep a democracy alive.

Furthermore, having to depend on a mayor for committee appointments can create an insiduous culture of tacit accommodation. A mayor who does not have the authority to appoint alders to committees would have to work much harder at persuading the legislative body of the merits of his/her intentions and actions. He or she could not use alder appointments as a carrot or stick to garner votes. When that happens now, we tend to criticize mayors for behavior when, in fact, the organizational condition creates and dictates such behavior. Therefore, changing the way alder appointments happen will have a long-lasting, positive effect on the future politics of Madison. In my opinion, a Council that has the authority to appoint its own members to city committees will assert itself more and exercise such responsibility with more accountability.

So who should make alder appointments to city committees? There is a myriad of models to choose from across the country. In our City it could be Council leadership, a special Council committeee comprised of alders, or the current Common Council Organizational Committee. Each option has its own strengths and issues. None of them will eliminate the political nature or (perceived) preferential treatment of alder appointments to commitees. That's not the intent for this suggested change and would be quite naive to expect. What is intended is to restore and/or create a stronger balance of power between the legislative and executive branch of our local government. This should provide more genuine opportunities for constructive disagreement between a mayor and a Council.

Let's keep a mayor's mitts off of appointing alders to committees and make such appointments truly a legislative affair.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Is it time for a City Administrator?

How would you feel getting another "city leader" without an election? At no additional cost? Sounds too good to be true? Yet this is exactly the scenario that many municipalities across the world enjoy. It requires having a City Administrator who takes on the day-to-day management tasks of running the city government while allowing the elected mayor to focus on strategy, vision, and the political process.

Specifically, a City Administrator would implement policy and deliver services with a commitment to effectiveness and accountability to elected officials, be responsible for managing resources efficiently, and perform according to the professional and ethical standards defined by the field of public administration. City administrators are more inclined to balance details and strategy, and short and and long-term interests. They are grounded in policy analysis and implementation, law and regulation, and in the accumulated knowledge and experience of their public service career.

In some ways the retiring City Engineer and Director of Public Works, Larry Nelson, or the former Director of Planning & Community & Economic Development, George Austin, fulfilled the role of the City Administrator informally by virtue of skill, ability, authority, and longevity. One could even claim they fulfilled the informal role of the City Administrator because the size of our city government has such a latent need.

A City Admistrator is sometimes mistakenly compared to a City Manager. The latter belongs to a governance model where there is no mayor. Instead a City Manager is hired by and reports to the elected City Council. In some cases the President of the Council may serve as a "Mayor." There are too many variations to list here. The key point is that I am discussing the Administrator model that includes an elected mayor. Besides, Madison unsuccessfully tried the City Manager model between 1947 and 1951.

For those who want to critique the addition of a City Administrator as another level of bureaucracy, you may want to read up on the history of how this function came into existence. In the early part of the 20th Century it was the the progressive movement in Wisconsin that promoted city managers or administrators as a means to break up the political machines (and parties) that dominated City Hall to the detriment of the citizens. The intent was to expand the civil service code of conduct within local governments by promoting transparent standards of fairness and due process, and reducing the favoritism and arbitrary treatment of citizens.

As our City faces a number of major reorganizations in the near future, we have the opportunity of rethinking our internal governance model. We could create an Office of Management and Organization, headed by a City Administrator, for example, that would fulfill many of the functions currently performed by mayoral aides. While I am not suggesting that the aides aren't doing their job well or that a Mayor shouldn't have any appointed aides, newly elected mayors are more inclined to use these aide positions as a reward to campaign workers who may not have the grounding in public policy and analysis and/or do their learning on the job. The prerequiste for a City Administrator would be to bring the required knowledge, skills, and ability to the job.

As mayors enter their second terms and previous campaign workers move on, it seems the second round of aides often are selected based on their professional experience and competence. Perhaps second-term mayors have learned that governance is more than just being politically savvy. City administrators provide the best of both worlds. They offer professional continuity while being accountable to elected officials beyond the election cycles of local politics.

When should such a transition occur, how shall it be paid for, and what could it look like? I suggest when a new Mayor is elected, reduce the current number of aides by two or three and use the salary savings to pay for the incoming City Administrator and the newly established office. We could also look into consolidating other City functions and positons into the new office. One scenario could include integrating the Office of Organizational Development & Training into the City Administrator's office.

Such an office would, among other tasks, begin to re-emphasize training and development across the City to encourage excellent customer service, re-ignite the continuous improvement efforts needed during good and especially bad budget times, integrate the current environmental sustainability efforts (The Natural Step model) across all departments (since TNS and the continuous improvement model share many of the same methods and tools), and offer elected officials, including the City Council, more data and support.

The complexities of governance during a tighter budget era requires a rethinking of how the City of Madison should be governed. So why not get more for the the buck? Let's free up the Mayor from daily governance issues and allow him or her advocate for the electoral mandate. Let's hire a City Administrator to implement the mandate with consistency, expertise, professionalism, and an eye towards continuous improvement.

On a side note, my interest in excellence in civil service comes from my own experience as a former civil servant at the Federal level, my Masters in Public Administration, being a member of the American Society for Public Administration, having used the City of Madison as a case study for my Ph.D. dissertation research in the mid nineties, being an active board member in the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, and owning a private organization development firm in Madison.

More importantly, my interest in this topic is based on my present work as an elected alder who perceives that we need to improve our local government structure and operations to effectively manage our human and capital resources during tougher economic times.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Closing of the Catholic Multicultural Center

The abrupt closing of the Catholic Center is a severe blow to our community during a time when more people need financial, social, and moral support.

As a business owner and elected official, I am mindful of painful financial realities and decisions. I presume that Bishop Morlino and the leadership of the diocese felt compelled to act out of financial necessity. I trust they wanted to prevent a painful, public process. If this were an ordinary organization, we could and would painfully accept the decision.

But the Catholic Multicultural Center is more than a brick and mortar organization. It is more than an agency delivering services. It is a charitable mission based in the faith of helping others in need. When growing up with my grandmother in Germany, it was the Catholic Church that provided kindergarten, youth programs, and senior services. While I grew up in poverty, my parish never made me feel poor.

To me, the manner in which the closing of the Center occurred reflects a deeper crisis of belief in our ability of coming together during moments of difficulties. It sadly reflects a (momentary) lack of faith.

What would have happened had Bishop Morlino engaged the larger community in a dialogue about the financial dilemma of the Center?

What would have happened had there been placed more faith in people like Tim Huegerich to come together to lend a hand?

What would have happened had the diocese sought help from our community to find alternatives?

As long as we perceive the act of giving as a one-way street, we cannot appreciate the equally important act of receiving. When we learn to ask for help, we strengthen our faith and action in making our community whole, regardless of religious persuasion. It was the diocese’s turn to have faith in receiving help from our community.

In our trials and struggles lies the seed for change and hope. It is not too late for the Bishop and the diocese to embrace the emerging political and community support, and to allow through conversation, deeds, and faith to find a better future for the Center. Caritas in Veritate.

To blog or not to blog?

I've been contemplating a blog for quite some time but refrained from it because of time constraints. As an alder I serve on twelve committees and as a business owner and consultant I manage two companies. So there isn't much time left.

I also felt that a meaningful blog requires regular attention. And because I've been journaling since the age of eleven and didn't want to compromise this important ritual (and therapy), I've been somewhat reluctant.

However, a number of friends and community members kept bugging me to start a blog. I wonder whether they just want to confirm their opinions of me, see me make a fool of myself in public, or have some other motive yet to be discovered.

All joking aside, I do have two compelling reasons for initiating this blog. First, as an elected official I believe a blog, where I can share my thoughts and feelings about events and decisions, will add to public discourse. Second, the act of writing has always helped me improve my thinking. It slows down the mind enough to keep asking what the underlying issues are and what the end goal should be.

With this in mind I'm willing to join the millions of bloggers out there.

PS: Don't expect polished grammar. You get what you pay for.