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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

More on ethics and better coordination and management of economic development at the "ward" level in DC

The Washington Times reports today, in "Thomas case exposes ethics loophole," about how systematic reporting isn't required for charitable donations made to projects and charities under the thumb of members of DC City Council.

A flip side problem is with "community benefits agreements" that arise from zoning matters. We don't have sector plans in the city--we do have "Area Elements" but they aren't focused plans. And we don't have a defined and transparent process for negotiating community benefits and various parties get involved--Councilmembers, the Office of Planning, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, ANCs, neighborhood associations, other stakeholders--in an uncoordinated fashion. (I argue that lack of definition is designed to reduce overall costs on the part of developers.)

See this past blog entry, " Community Benefits Agreements" (revised 2009).

With sector plans, or comprehensive neighborhood plans, through the process you can define a set of consensus neighborhood priorities. Then, when the opportunity for community benefits comes up, they can be directed towards consensus priorities, rather than whatever the Councilmember, who usually functions as the Ward caudillo, wants.

The Financial Times had an article last week, "Watching the executives," about fraud within companies. From the article:

Companies caught lying, cheating or bribing are increasingly turning to new a solution to signal they have recovered their moral compass – an integrity tsar. One reason is that hiring a guardian of ethics is an easy way to broadcast to the outside world that the business has renounced its former ways.

The article also lists these guidelines for encouraging ethical behavior:

Trust but verify. “Be sure to audit, monitor and investigate,” says Mr Snell. Conducting anonymous surveys that ask employees how their managers handle ethics education can help establish whether companies practise what they preach, says Mr Freeh.

Put resources where needed most. Conducting risk-based analysis, country by country and sector by sector, has enabled Siemens to assess where its employees, agents and suppliers are most likely to infringe regulations.

Monitor carefully. Track calls to compliance helpdesks and whistle-blowing hotlines to spot systemic problems, advises Ms Olinger.

Set the tone from the top. If the chief executive is clear compliance is a priority, then managers will follow, says Mr Solmssen. But if the sub-text is “get me the deal, no matter what”, the compliance officer stands no chance at all.

The big issue is to build in the right systems and processes to routinize ethical behavior and to reduce the likelihood of unethical behavior. Rather than pass a wonky, convoluted bill that doesn't do much (see "Nathan criticizes council ethics bill: Calls measures added redundant" from the Washington Times), why not step back, start over, and do things right?

I haven't read the report that just came out similarly in Prince George's County, Maryland (and I am not likely to), but I expect that it has some similar defects concerning building truly robust processes that "harden out" corruption. See "Task force issues recommendations for ethics reform in Prince George's" from the Washington Post.

One thing that Montgomery County does to regularize economic development practices at the "area" level is their creation of what are called regional service centers. They are combination community support and economic development entities. They have five to cover the entire county, and each has one satellite office.

In DC, the Mayor's Office has a neighborhood unit, which does help neighborhoods but is also a political-support building mechanism more than it is about building the civic engagement capacity of residents (unlike say how the Department of Neighborhoods works in Seattle or how the Neighborhood Revitalization Program works in Minneapolis). And the Deputy Mayor's Office has a slew of project managers working on stuff. And then pretty much most Councilmembers have someone in their office tasked with dealing with projects, usually real estate related, in their wards.

E.g., the way these articles describe Councilmember Harry Thomas' interactions with developers is pretty typical of how DC operates ("Harry Thomas's untold story," and "Harris Teeter said to be eyeing Brookland" from the Post).

We have these ten Area Elements as part of the Comp. Plan. Having 10 "regional services offices is too many, but we definitely need a more regularized system than we have now. Going to a form of regional services offices, based on the Area Elements, is likely another step that DC should take as part of creating a more transparent and ethical political and governance system.

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