City Hall's shelf of shame
While brainstorming topics for this column, I realized that I’ve hit a milestone: this is column number fifty I’ve written for The Courier-Gazette. I first started this column in late 2014, intending to analyze City Council matters. I’ve generally stuck to that intent, though I sometimes duck my attention over to examine what’s happening with the school district. I’d like to do that more frequently, but it takes enough time just to follow city council.
When I first started, I was pretty green. I know more now than I did then but there is one core question that I have yet to resolve.
As a community, we spend a lot of time expecting city council and city government to fix the issues in our community. Such expectations range from filling potholes, which is an easily fixed problem, if you’re willing (and able) to pay for it to more stubborn problems like reducing drug abuse, the lack of affordable housing, and increasing well-paying jobs. These latter problems evade easy solutions, both of funding and programming.
The question I have yet to resolve is whether city government, council and departments included, is the best route for accomplishing such systemic change. If so, what kind of change and what are the limits of that change?
As a volunteer, I wonder, can I achieve more change working on a city committee (or ten as some of us seem to do), running for city council (I’m not running for city council), or working with a non-profit? Or simply advocating change from my paper podium. I’m still puzzling personally over the most effective route of engagement to solve community problems.
But I would argue that city council has an important role in the community that it is not fully capitalizing on: its policy work. When council directs policy making, when it delegates both to staff and to committees, then it creates a strong and supported network to attract development, whether that is economic or community development.
We can see this best through the work council has done with housing over the last few years; council has implemented a number of concrete policies that positively affect the housing market, though there’s much more work to be done.
The recent decision to require owners of dilapidated structures to repair the property or to take them down has had a satisfying ripple effect through the market. It’s wonderful to see Habitat become the go-to property buyer and rehabilitate them (when possible). I hope to continue to see currently vacant houses turned into homes that people can afford to stay in.
(It’s a shame, though, when such properties have to be torn down because they have been vacant so long they cannot be restored. Hopefully the increased enforcement will catch properties before they become irredeemable.)
This improvement to our local housing stock is a direct result of council attention to a dire need in our community — affordable and attractive properties — and direct action on council’s part. This is council activity at its best: identifying a problem and finding a range of solutions to target it.
To continue this work, council is creating a housing committee. Hopefully such a committee will be given a strong, clear directive and will continue to develop innovative solutions to address our housing shortage and the quality of rental housing available.
But this give-and-take between council and committee is something that council does not effectively or consistently utilize. Frequently committees spend a great deal of time on a solution that languishes on a shelf in city hall. (It’s a literal shelf. I’ve recently seen the pile.)
This points not to a failure of imagination or ideas — Rockland is always full of ideas, from citizens, staff, and councilors. It points to a failure of follow-through or top-down implementation.
While council recently created a work plan, it’s hard to see how that work plan is being strategically deployed or what decisions council is making that address issues comprehensively or collectively. On individual projects, much is being accomplished — housing, weatherization, the landfill, streets, and so forth — but the larger vision is still inconsistently envisioned or implemented.
We are about to enter into budget season, which is always appropriately timed with mud season. This is the time when council’s work shifts to approving funds for the plans it has made. Many of the perennial difficulties in the budget — should this department receive this much versus this other department, is this department fulfilling the community needs effectively, and so forth — need to be addressed not during budget season but during the rest of the year, through concrete work plans and follow through of them.
When this happens, council provides the framework and structures by which the committees can thrive and city government can create meaningful and extensive change. But it needs that attention to policy work, to structural work and that trust in committees to examine knotty issues and to create solutions that it implements.