The Tragic Lack of Leadership in City Government

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 15, 2002

Caution: Angry venting below…

Yesterday, I had the extreme misfortune of walking into the planning director’s office to observe a discussion by our city commission at their regular Monday meeting. I was, at the time, a senior planner for a city in Florida. At this meeting, the commission was discussing a (predictable) funding shortfall for the parking garage being proposed to serve the new county courthouse, and the design of this garage.

Despite my better instincts, I decided to watch, largely because a presentation was being made by the consultant designing the garage — a consultant who understands and appreciates quality design. As I watched, I vowed that I would immediately leave the room the moment a city commissioner started uttering a word.

Since 1986, I’ve seen only 4-5 city commission meetings — and those only because I was required to make a presentation to the elected city commission — because it is pure, unadulterated torture to listen to a commission meeting for more than a few seconds. This is true even though every single commission meeting since 1986 has been intimately connected to my professional work.

During the consultant presentation, the upcoming commission direction was already brutally obvious to me without their having yet said a word, despite my not having heard anything previously about commission views on this topic. As is the case with nearly all elected officials faced with funding problems or screams from constituents that a project is “too expensive,” the commission would fall all over itself to cut all of the ornamentation and details out of the garage. To create, as is almost always done, a lifeless, embarrassing, sterile, dreary box building that would create a dead zone in a downtown in desperate need of vibrancy.

I made a mistake by somehow staying in the room when one of our “leaders” began his comments.

The mad dash toward mediocrity had begun.

He starts by insisting that ALL ornamentation and detailing be stripped from the impressive architectural design. Then, the clincher: His ideological buddy on the commission chimes in by requesting that a first-floor “wrap” of offices and retail be eliminated. This “wrap” was required by a downtown ordinance I had written in the late 1990s to try to enliven these deadening auto garages.

I am sure of what my task will be today at the office: Either find a way for the commission to evade this “wrap” regulation, or prepare a staff recommendation to dump the regulation. Elected City Commissioners have an important advantage over private developers: if they don’t like a regulation, they simply get rid of it. “Do as we say, not as we do…”

As the commissioner made has case for dumping the “wrap,” I quickly exited the room. I walked out calmly, but inside I was shrieking in agony and on the verge of vomiting.

A light bulb had gone off in my head: Perhaps more so than with private developers, urban development regulations are necessary to protect against PUBLIC officials who are desperate to find any possible way to avoid making ANYONE unhappy, even if it means substantial design compromise that goes against staff recommendations. The same holds true for a great many staff supervisors. For both commissioners and supervisors, much of life consists of compromising. An important difference, therefore, between leadership and mediocrity is that the leader is uncompromising when it comes to designing for quality of life.

This entire debacle clarified, for me, how I would define leadership in the city government pursuit of an improved quality of life. There are four fundamental elements that create an urban leader. A city government leader…

…Has courage to not cave in on a proposal that is clearly in the public interest. Courage when faced with bleeding heart or “black hat” pressure to stop the proposal or emasculate MayorRileyit.

…Has wisdom about quality, timeless design in the public realm. Is not susceptible to bogus design arguments.

…Is uncompromising in her or his pursuit of an improved quality of life.

Corners are not cut on essentials. It is NOT in the public interest to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The thousands of lifeless public buildings built around the nation over the past 50 years is testament to how few leaders are found in this country. The entirely forgettable and embarrassing “modernist” public buildings we’ve built since WWII means that our sense of civic pride is nearly non-existent.

…Is decisive. The leader understands that putting off decisions, or referring decisions to “boards,” or “task forces,” or “committees” (that is, substantially increasing the number of decision makers) INEVITABLY dumbs down the proposal, delays the project drastically (to kill political momentum) waters it down to meaningless pabulum, or kills it. The decision-maker knows that momentum to get it done quickly, while the vision is sharp in the minds of the decision-makers, is crucial in avoiding Death by Lowest Common Denominator (the non-decision that offends no one because it does nothing).

I’m sorry to have to say this, but in my 15 years as a town planner in city government, I have not seen a single city commissioner possess these four elements.

Indeed, our two latest additions to the city commission embody the OPPOSITE of the second and third of these four, to the ultimate and possibly long-lasting ruin of this community.

I’ve gotten glimpses of leadership elsewhere: Nancy Graham in West Palm Beach. Joseph Riley in Charleston. John Norquist in Milwaukee.

 

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