Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

More on DC ethics and corruption: intrinsic vs. extrinsic behavior

Today's Post has a front page story sum up of the issue, "New District scandals, old '90s vibe," although it doesn't say all that much. What's new is that it features interviews with DC citizens (who don't add very much to the discussion). From the article:

[Max A.] Brown said that Williams and Fenty helped build a foundation for economic growth and good government during their combined 12 years in office. “We’re chipping away at the foundation,” he added. “The question is, how thick is that foundation?”

I think that the media does a disservice by inferring that Mayor Fenty had a robust ethical agenda, that he is an example of good government practices.

First, high level officials in his administration steered contracts to people connected with the Mayor with the mayor seemingly not involved. It was still unseemly. And clearly people were doing what they thought the Mayor wanted.

It's no different than the arms length distance between the Sulaimon Brown issue or the hiring of cronies and/or the children of cronies by the Gray Administration...

Second, Mayor Fenty appointed a lot of substandard people to City boards and commissions, based mostly on friendship, not on quality. That's an issue too that shouldn't be ignored, although it's great if you are a triathalon person.

Third, same thing with the management of the schools, and the personnel decisions there. Horrid.

Fourth, the general avoidance of the press, the control of contacts with the media, requiring information requests to go to the "freedom of information" act process.

Fifth, the fire truck for the Dominican Republic issue.

Sixth, Fenty's ageism practices, a belief that anyone over 40 years of age has little to offer. etc.

I am sure I could come up with many more examples.

I would not argue that Mayor Fenty helped drive a "good government" agenda for the city.

In today's Post, Robert McCartney has an incredibly naive column, "In Prince George's and D.C., time to bring back the political boss," seeking an ethical "caudillo" to keep DC politicos in line.

For the most part, oligarchies aren't formed to promote ethical behavior. See the classic political science tome from 1911, Political Parties, by Robert Michels for more on this theme:

First defined by German sociologist Robert Michels (1876-1936), this refers to the inherent tendency of all complex organizations, including radical or socialist political parties and labour unions, to develop a ruling clique of leaders with interests in the organization itself rather than in its official aims. These leaders, Michels argued, came to desire leadership and its status and rewards more than any commitment to goals.
Maybe Peter O'Malley, the dean of the Prince George's County Democratic Party, was particularly ethical and kept people in line for awhile. Probably not.

The nature of political power isn't to do the right thing, it's to get control of contracts and personnel decisions. And control of the land use decision making process, and the use of licensing and other government processes to favor certain interests over others.

So because of the iron law of oligarchy, I would argue the need is to build into the system a preference for ethical behavior and transparency, not for it to be handed down by some benevolent dictator (even me--although as far as these matters go I am reasonably objective).

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