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, September 11, 2012

Interesting article on how constituent service provision by legislators reduces the likelihood of systemic change

The Sunday Review section of the New York Times had an interesting article about Congress, "A Congress for the Many, or the Few?," government oversight, and the role of constituent services--Congressional offices stepping in and interceding on behalf of constituents with various federal agencies to rectify issues, problems, and requests--and how this is dysfunctional.  From the article:

For the country, what government workers call “constituent services” — really the meddling of representatives in the business of executive agencies — is a sign of federal dysfunction, and one with consequences. Congress, arguably the most powerful branch of government, seems to have given up on the main thing the Constitution authorizes it to do: pass laws.

Instead, it is busy helping Americans one at a time, an impractical and outrageously expensive operation, which is not only a kind of favoritism masquerading as compassion, but a thumb in the eye of the Constitution, with its much admired blueprint for separation of powers.

The authors of the Constitution were clear: Congress would make the laws, and the executive branch would see that they were carried out. Instead, a vast constituent-services machine, likely costing billions of dollars a year, is letting Congress micro-, not macro-manage, the executive branch. 

I have definitely felt this way about constituent services by Councilmembers (and even the Executive Branch) in DC. 

First, constituent service functions are used as a way to solidify the power of elected officials, rather than to build the capacity of citizens and civic organizations to solve their own problems. 

Second, Councilmember offices typically focus on solving individual problems rather than dealing with issues in a structured, systematic way so that outcomes are improved overall, across the city, rather than in a single instance. 

In other words, unlike say the City's Service Request System, where reported problems are collated and presumably analyzed for patterns and structural-outcome issues in a systematic way, the constituent services approach is a kludge.

The happened in my neighborhood a couple months ago.  A resident bordering the Takoma Recreation Center complained about loud amplified music and proposed that music be banned. 

I replied that rather than banning music, how about deal with the level of amplification.  I did a bit of research, found that the permitting process in other jurisdictions dealt with amplification in very specific ways, with limits on how loud the amplification could be, as measured at the border of the park.

Meanwhile the Councilmember's office replied that they'd deal with the citizen and the park manager directly and "work something out."

I was incensed because if this a recurring problem, (1) when the personnel change, the "solution" will be lost and need to be re-visited and (2) if this is a systemic problem, the opportunity is lost to address the problem so that all parks have the same policy, procedures, and practices in ways that balance the sometimes competing needs of park users and residents while improving outcomes and the performance of DC government agencies.

It turns out there are DPR regulations, including Sec. 4.6 on amplified sound, with a limit of 60 decibels, although the regulations do not indicated from which point it is to be measured.

 -- DC DPR permit request form (which does have a question on whether or not amplified sound is anticipated)

-- City of Boise Special Event permit application

Then again, speaking of self-reliance, in an aside at a hearing, I once asked a Council staff person for the last name of one of her colleagues, which I had temporarily forgotten.  She then helpfully offered that I could look it up on the office website, that I could use the Internet for research.

I got so pissed.  I asked her if she was going to instruct me on how to do research?  I was pissed because while the Councilmember always complimented me in public and at hearings, her staff kept her on lockdown in terms of my access to her--I could never get a meeting.  That just felt like one more diss that I wasn't willing to let pass.

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