On more than just local government

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Knocking heads against a wall

About five years ago, I was speaking with the Chief Information Officer for the City of Chicago. We were speaking about recalcitrant department personnel within cities that were balking at moving to e-government. He told the story about one particular problem in his city.

After multiple attempts to get the department head to comply, the CIO went to his office and pointed to a picture of the Mayor on his wall. (In Chicago, the Mayor’s portrait is standard office decoration.) After one final fruitless attempt for him to comply of his own volition, the CIO pointed to the picture and said, “He wants you to do this. Do you have any other questions?”

It got done.

The 9/11 Commission testimony of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was stunning in many ways, but most scary was that even the President of the United States can’t get a bureaucracy to do what it is supposed to do. As opposed to the situation in Chicago, the work he wanted done didn’t get done and nearly 3,000 people are dead.

Bureaucracies have lives of their own. This is one of the reasons I am opposed to term limits. All the limitation of the people who are charged with overseeing the government has done is to make these nameless and faceless bureaucrats even more powerful than they were before. After all, they can wait you out. The new ones coming in won’t know who they even are until it is nearly time for them to go as well.

In local government, with a system that devolves most of the day-to-day operational control to a City Manager, the need for vigilance among elected officials is even greater. As part timers, it is very difficult for an elected to get to know the inner workings of a city by the time their proscribed time in office is up.

And while most City Managers do their best to keep the elected officials aware of what is going on, some are more secretive than others. In addition, the City Manager is presenting information through his or her own personal prism, with many City Charters structured so that elected officials are warned not to delve too deeply into departmental affairs, so they might get another perspective on the same story.

We have had bureaucracies as long as we have had government (and big business as well). They will never be replaced. But it is wrongheaded to make it even stronger by taking some of the oversight tools away from those who are held accountable by the public. The most effective tool is experience. Term limits destroys that capability.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Thoughts on a desert journey

Twenty five years ago, a group of advertising guys decided they needed a break from a spate of bad late March weather and went to Palm Springs to watch some Angels preseason baseball. A quarter century later, the same guys made their silver anniversary visit. Since the Angels haven’t played there in years, the ritual has changed to multiple rounds of golf as well as to better wines and food than were affordable then.

As with the guys, the cities of the desert have changed dramatically over the years. In the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s, the former “core” desert city of Palm Springs was being overshadowed by the growing “new” cities of Palm Desert, Indian Wells and Rancho Mirage. The money was moving eastward, and Palm Springs was left as a decaying relic.
At the same time, the indigenous population of Native Americans, the Agua Calientes, Morongos and other tribes, were basically either on the dole or working in menial jobs serving visiting Angelenos and snowbird Canadians.

How times have changed. Now, as you drive toward the Coachella Valley from the west, you see a new high rise hotel being built to serve as the centerpiece of a new Morongo Casino, the third of an ever growing sequence, on that site. Past that, you enter Palm Springs with a newly spiffed up downtown, brought about by a combination of new residents, a progressive city administration and the establishment of the Agua Caliente’s casino on the site of the old Palm Springs Spa.

We can learn a lot from the revitalization of the desert. The first is that a city’s resurgence relies upon creativity and resources. For Palm Springs, it was a film festival, the brainchild of then Mayor Sonny Bono, that got people to look at the city in a different way, attracting new visitors and, ultimately, new businesses and residents.

But ideas need money. In Palm Springs, it was not only a combination of entertainment sources, such as clubs and restaurants, but also a growing high end retail sector, catering to the better heeled residents that were gentrifying the old city shell that made it work. In addition, the city has benefited, indirectly, from the success of Indian gaming.

Yet they haven’t benefited as much as they could if the casinos were paying into the State’s coffers instead of the tribes’. And while the governor is trying to get Indian casinos to ante up to the state in order to get increased gaming opportunities, such as full casino gambling, the amount will be a pittance compared to what it would get if they would just legalize gambling.

Yes, I’ve heard all the whining about how legalization will penalize the poor and play into the gambling addict’s hands. If this is the criterion for public policy, why do we allow anybody to buy cigarettes? For that killer addiction, we offer help for those who desire it, ultimately assuming that adults can make decisions for themselves. Why shouldn’t it be the same for gambling?

Meanwhile, our Puritanical nature hasn’t stopped gambling from happening. All it has stopped is the government getting something out of it. This ostrich-like policy is ludicrous. It is time we acted like adults. Gambling is largely illegal, yet omnipresent. What part of this failure don’t we understand?

Besides, we could use the money more than the tribes or the bookies, no?