Thursday, September 11, 2014

City government: why can't we run it like a business?

Last time we met we figured out how San Diego was begotten.  Now it’s time to unravel the purpose of city government and discover what’s it all about when you sort it out

We’ll start the sorting process with a couple of facts.  Then we’ll go for the jackpot question: why can’t city government be run like a business? 

First fact: city government deserves a lot more attention from you and me than it usually gets.  Why? because our elected officials have substantial influence on our everyday lives – more than we give them credit for. 

The political decisions of our mayor and council members penetrate our neighborhoods and reach straight into our private homes, directly impacting how we navigate our personal lives.  Sometimes it's for better.  Other times it's for worse.  

Second fact: did you know that San Diego is legally defined as a municipal corporation?  No, it’s not a business in the ordinary sense.  Our city is classified as a self-governing public entity endowed with the “right and power to make and enforce all laws and regulations in respect to municipal affairs.”

And exactly what are municipal affairs?  Probably not what you're thinking.  Municipal affairs are the city's raison d'être.  The city is created to deliver public public safety and essential infrastructure.  Core services invariably include police and fire protection (in a coastal town, throw in lifeguards), water and power, garbage collection/ sewers/ sanitation (public restrooms get short shrift), parks, streets and roads, libraries, and schools.

Can you think of any other items that qualify as a municipal affair worthy of government intervention? How about public funding for sports teams? public funding for after-school programs? hiking the value of land via discretionary zoning changes to enhance developer profits? reinvesting in the Housing Trust Fund to build low-income housing? city-sponsored WiFi? underwriting costs for the 3rd expansion of our Convention Center? mandates to reduce energy and water consumption? legislating the size of worker wages?

Making and enforcing laws in respect to municipal affairs seems benign but surprise! you’ve just entered the twilight zone of city politics, where competing political philosophies and interests go mano a mano in bloody battle for dominance, favor, and financial support. 

Which leads us to the jackpot question: why can't city government be run like a
business? 

Asking it another way, can the goals and values inherent in governmental responsibilities to the public (municipal affairs) line up with the goals and values associated with commercial business (making a profit)?  Can the practices of the public sector and private sector co-mingle in City Hall without producing corrupt mutant offspring?

Here's one way to think about it: in the existential quest for survival, we humans rely on a couple of different systems to satisfy our needs.  Both systems are valid and necessary.  One involves trade/commerce/ business.  The other involves government.  (For a detailed presentation of this concept pick up a copy of Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics by Jane Jacobs.)  

These two systems are complimentary but fundamentally antagonistic since each operates under a discrete set of goals, objectives, values, and attitudes. 

The ideals of business incorporate values like the freedom to seek one’s own self interest, competition with other interests, efficiency, innovation, and measureable output.  The bottom line is profit.  While business is often a force for good, the greater good is not the foremost goal of business.  

Government, on the other hand, operates under a set of values geared to serving and protecting society.  Some may view it as the guardian of the vulnerable and defender of the common good.  By its nature, government focuses on the greater good and is antithetical to profit-making and competition.  

Both systems have perilous limitations.  Fraud, greed, and public theft are generally the outcome of unrestrained or poorly regulated business practices.  And when public watchdogs are muzzled or marginalized, government can run roughshod over personal liberties and individual rights.

But at its best, local government provides a stable, lawful, structured environment for the business sector.  Commerce can thrive where government provides good infrastructure, education, health, transportation, and stability. 

And at its best, business provides the public sector with strong economic engines and technologic advances.  Local government can thrive when economic opportunities, options, and benefits are enhanced for city residents and workers.

It's called symbiosis – wholesome cooperation between government and business.  It's not only desirable, it's necessary since neither one does well in the absence of the other.

But symbiosis is different from inter-breeding.   Interbred hybrids create unhealthy mutants.  Think of organized crime.  Think of our nation’s investment bankers and corporate raiders. 

Closer to home, think about our termed-out politicians who have reincarnated as high-cost lobbyists. 

Think about former mayor Jerry Sanders, who laid aside the public good and joined the dark side as chief hatchet man for San Diego’s overweening and morally challenged Chamber of Commerce.   

Think about congressman Juan Vargas’s remunerative meanderings between political office and the insurance industry. 

Think about master-schnorrer John Moores, hovering once again over the heart of downtown to rake in new fortunes through the beneficence of city subsidies and land deals.

Think about the latest corporate welfare bribe from mayor Kevin Falconer making nice to the Illumina Corporation.  It might go a long way to keeping him comfortably afloat once his stint as mayor comes to an end.

It takes strong ethical leadership to curb the creation of municipal mutants like these.  It takes sturdy ethical moorings to prevent business interests from dominating city government.  It takes political integrity to synthesize the responsibilities of government with private business objectives while keeping them at arms length from one another.

Where does that leave us?  Will we stay silent as City Hall become a marketplace for monied business interests who walk away with the spoils?  Will we be passive as our elected council members abdicate their rightful role at City Hall?  Will we roll over for a mayor who is just following orders as he ignores his responsibility to the public and willfully conflates government's business with business's business?  

Or will we rally friends and neighbors and learn how to get ourselves heard now that we know what it’s all about when you sort it out…(don't miss the musical rendition)


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