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, July 09, 2013

Incremental piecemeal fixes to DC politics and governance mostly don't help

Image from the Fair Elections for New York Facebook page.

In the Sunday Post, DC City Councilmember David Grosso has a short op-ed ("Why DC needs public campaign financing") about why we need public financing of local elections--to strike a blow against "pay to play" politics, which was recently detailed (but totally unsurprising) in a series on the local NPR station, WAMU-FM ("Deals for Developers, Cash for Campaigns: A WAMU Investigation").

Pay to play sucks, but the reality is that because local business is primarily either real estate or government jobs (municipal unions) the people and organizations most motivated to get people elected are highly self-interested.  I don't see how much it can change.

Whether or not public financing of elections is important, and I concede that it is, the bigger problem is the lack of strong governance systems and civil society more generally.

I'd be willing to support public financing (which hasn't even made my top 12 of things that should change in local governance) if Councilmember Grosso would be supportive of other changes--which, judging by his opposition to moving the election primary to June from the too-early April date that is now in place--that would have far more impact.  See "D.C. primary election date could be moved again" and "D.C. Council will vote Wednesday on changing primary election date" from the Post.

The best discussion of the proposed changes I'd make is here, "Continued musing on restructuring DC's City Council (mostly)," and these is the master list (note that 1, 2, 3, 15, 17, 18, and 19 weren't included in that list but are added in the spirit of comprehensiveness):

1.   Create an independently elected Attorney General and build the capacity of this office to take control of local prosecution of crime (this responsibility is currently handled by the Federal Government);

2.   Create a public planning and budgeting process for capital improvements, sale of civic assets, and alley closings;

3.   Create a public and transparent process for tax abatement and eminent domain requests (see "Make eminent domain fair for all" from the Boston Globe; the recommendations pertain to both issues);

4.   Increase the number of wards;

5.   Increase the number of councilmembers (thereby making it harder to pass legislation);

6.   Move the legislature to part-time service and reduced pay;

7.   Reduce the size of councilmember staff  (I could go either way on this one; what bothers me is how much staff time is spent on incumbency protection);

8.   Increase the research capacity of local government;

9.   Institute term limits for elected officials;

10. Change the date of the primary election to extend the electioneering period;

11. Institute ranked choice voting for local elected officials;

12. Institute additional campaign finance limits for local elections;

13. Create an elected public advocate/ombudsperson (and a civil jury process to investigate government agencies);

14. Reconstitute a school board with oversight over pre-K to 12 public education, traditional and charter schools;

15. Use participatory budgeting methods for appropriating constituent services funds requests and grants to nonprofit organizations ("More on ethics: discretionary funding-constituent funds");

16. Build civic capacity and infrastructure ("Neighborhood planning meta-website);

17. Strengthen the capacity of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to be better and fairer representatives (""Networked solutions" for some problems with ANCs in DC" and "A neat solution to (some of the) petty corruption in DC government-related civic organizations");

18. Change the planning process to include the production of formal sector and neighborhood comprehensive land use plans ("Planning process failures generally and the upcoming DC Central Library planning process," "Rethinking community planning around maintaining neighborhood civic assets and anchors," and "A key problem in "community" planning: not simultaneously defining community-wide and neighborhood goals and objectives").

19. Various tweaks as needed to planning and zoning processes such as a Big Box Review Ordinance ("Lessons from Walmart's foray into Washington, DC"), community benefits negotiations ("Community benefits agreements revised again" and "What community benefits are supposed to be versus what people think they are about"), and urban design requirements ("New years post #6 -- the crazy thing about U.S. zoning is that it's not designed to maximize overall land value" and "Changing matter of right zoning regulations for houses to conform to heights typical within neighborhoods, not the allowable maximum").

Attorney General (item 1).  I have taken the liberty of adding the elected Attorney General position to the list, which hadn't included it, because it is already slated to start in 2014, because the Executive Branch has proposed a number of changes to government which would eviscerate the impact of having an independently elected AG (see "Making an elected AG work for D.C." and the letter to the editor by CM Tommy Wells, "Elected attorney general should retain control of city legal staff," both from the Post).

Capital improvement planning (item 2).  Most every other jurisdiction runs capital budgeting on a six-year time frame, with a running two-year plan.  DC doesn't.  So there isn't a defined public process for planning long range capital improvements .  Instead, projects are handled in the annual budget.  The CFO and Mayor's offices have internal capital improvements planning processes, but they aren't public processes.  They should be.

Tax abatements, alley closings, and eminent domain requests (item 3).  Another thing that creates opportunity for corruption concerns these requests, which are typically initiated by legislation created by individual Councilmembers.  The CFO produces reports on the capital impact, but the reports aren't complete and independent analyses.  (Unlike the process recommended by the professors who wrote the opinion piece in the Boston Globe.)  There should be an open and transparent application and consideration process for such matters.

Public Advocate (item 13).  An elected Public Advocate would replace the DC Auditor General which reports to City Council and the Inspector General which reports to the Mayor, with an independent official position.  For obvious reasons--independence from the Executive and Legislative Branches)--this would be an important step forward for accountability.

A good example of why an independently elected Public Advocate/IG makes sense is the hullaballoo in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel is stonewalling independent investigation of city agencies by the IG there.  See "City stonewalling audit on garbage collection, inspector general says" from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Without independence, accountability is significantly constrained, as was the case with in-house investigations in DC's Chief Financial Office ("D.C. Council votes to require CFO to publish all audits" from the Washington Times).

Participatory Budgeting (item 15) and ANCs (item 17).  I've written about these issues a lot, this just incorporates the recommendations into the master list.

Neighborhood planning (item 18) and changes to planning and zoning processes (item 19) also cover issues I've written about extensively.  They are important enough to be added to this master list.

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Note that Statehood for DC isn't even listed.  I don't know how important it is to getting our own house in order.  Personally, I don't believe that statehood is an inherent right, you have to earn it.  Territories didn't become states without making their case for good government and sound practices, which was covered in bill setting the process of creating a state.

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