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, May 10, 2016

Ho hum: the proposed State of New Columbia Constitution doesn't change very much

I suppose when I first moved to DC almost 30 years ago, I believed in "statehood" for the city.  Back then, the DC Statehood Party still had a couple representatives on City Council.

Over the years--despite the unfairness imposed by lack of voting representation in Congress and the authority of Congress to overturn initiatives by the city--I've become less committed to it because "it's not efficient" in that the US needs fewer states, not more (e.g., the "Connectography argument" or the similar but 35 year old "Nine Nations of North America" argument, written in a book by Joel Garreau), and how "state's rights" arguments are more often used to deny people rights and privileges rather than to extend them.  Plus I think we are Americans first and citizens of states "second."
Economic geography of the US, Connectography book
Map showing the seven main economic geographic regions of the US, from Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization. From the Post article: These seven colorful patches are the natural topography and economic geography of the United States. It separates the U.S. into areas that focus on farming, automobile manufacturing, technology, finance, tourism, national parks, etc. Each of those regions has an urban anchor that serves as a financial and business center, a population center and a transportation hub. That’s what those white patches are. Then we need the black lines, which are the high-speed rail networks and freight railways connecting these regions to each other.

The other point I make is that nothing is in the way of DC acting like a state, being exemplary at policy, governance, and practice like in the days of the Great Society when DC was used as a site to demonstrate best or better practice to the rest of the nation, so that the city would demonstrate that it has "earned" the right to statehood, as all other states have had to do heretofore.  (DC's role as an example was discussed in the book Between Justice and Beauty by Howard Gillette.)

In many policy areas, already DC has the advantage of being North America's only functioning city-state, although without the full legal powers of state, unlike Mexico City (Distrito Federal) or the city-states of Hamburg, Bremen, and Berlin in Germany.

DC Voting RightsBut as a city, in terms of being at the leading edge of policy, governance, and innovative practice, for the most part DC is pretty average, with a handful of practices that stand out as national best practice (maybe bike share, better in the US, although not in terms of global practice; the Combi electricity and waste reduction generators at the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant; the original program supporting the development of community-based clinics and the health insurance coverage program that predated Obamacare).

Rather than focus on being great, instead the focus is on "our right to representation."  I get that.  But it doesn't make me particularly motivated to expend much energy on advocating for DC's statehood.

I joke that seeking statehood for DC amongst DC's progressive electorate is the equivalent of trying to stoke vote in conservative states by putting anti-immigrant or anti-gay rights referenda on the ballot.

Image from DCI Reporter.

I have to wonder, "why now?"

Looking at the proposals of the draft "Constitution" ("Draft constitution for 51st American state would let almost anyone be governor of D.C.," Washington Post) in terms of the governance structure, I have to say I am incredibly disappointed.  It renames the Mayor the Governor and renames the City Council the House of Representatives.  But otherwise there aren't significant changes.

Changing DC's system of governance by adding democracy.  I have written quite a bit over the years about how DC should consider expanding the number of elected representatives, by having two Councilmembers per ward instead of only one, and perhaps by expanding the number of wards.  In "Continued musing on restructuring DC's City Council (mostly)" I make the following recommendations:

1. Increase the number of wards.
2. Increase the number of councilmembers
3. Move the legislature to part-time service and reduced pay
4. Reduce the size of councilmember staff
5. Increase the research capacity of local government
6. Institute term limits for elected officials.
7. Change the date of the primary election to extend the electioneering period.
8. Institute ranked choice voting for local elected officials.
9. Institute additional campaign finance limits for local elections.
10. Create an elected public advocate/ombudsperson.
11. Reconstitute a school board with oversight over pre-K to 12 public education, traditional and charter schools.
12. Build civic capacity and infrastructure.

(Other posts have covered capital budgeting and participatory budgeting as processes that the city should adopt to generate better and fairer results and to reduce political meddling.)

There are at least four advantages to such a plan: (1) greater representation; (2) elected positions could shift to part-time, although that could create conflicts of interest; (3) there would be intra-ward competition rather than the default of ward-based monarchies headed by the single Councilmember; and (4) it would be harder to pass legislation--now bills can be passed by as few as seven Councilmembers.

Renaming the city a state and not much more.  By contrast, the proposed Constitution comes with no serious rethinking--we have about 40 years of experience with Home Rule now (the Act was passed in 1973), and it is time for an assessment of "how we've done"--of the city's system of representation and to see if we can do better.

Which again causes me to ask, "Why now" and "What for?" beyond adding representation in Congress, which is a serious longshot, and the system for representation in Congress needs many other changes to be fairer--for example, states like California and New York have less per capita representation than smaller states, the way that the Senate is organized to favor small states, etc.

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At 1:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of this is interesting and sensible but I didn't see the sense in shrinking legislative staff. I'm anonymous because of interest in DC politics, but let me just say I haven't worked in DC politics but in legislative work for a long time. My experience is that there is very little capacity in the legislative branch of any American government, such that many elected members of legislative bodies are barely more than focus groups, generally hostile, for a presidential model of government.

A legitimately functioning legislative branch needs better capacity than just whatever random complaints a legislator heard from his or her constituents, and an executive branch budget office, executive branch construction, finance or management consultants have the wrong interests for a legislator to trust them.

I don't want to belabor the point, but legislators need capacity to do a better job - frankly, better than they do now, in many places, but especially in DC.

At 2:20 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Was waiting for you to unload on this.

As for the question of timing, clearly Bowser feels she gains some sort of capital on this. As you said, red met for partisans. Also directly tied into the local budgeting decision.

I'd expand the council so each ANC basically is its own ward.

(I was thinking at Arlington is about 1 ward of DC, but with 5 people representing it).

I hear the above point on legislative resources, and I suspect DC is far more generous at that point than both Maryland and Virginia.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Well, I tend to agree with you. I wrestled with editing out that item in this particular piece.

Here's the reason why it was there originally: mostly it seems like the Councilmember's staff in DC are focused on incumbency protection activities, and constituent services activities are more about cementing support for the councilmember rather than building the capacity for self-help or systematic and structural changes to govt. processes, as identified by the constituent complaint.

But yes, to be effective you need more staff, not less.

To get around my complaints was the next recommendation on "increase the research capacity for local government". But it's vague as a summary point.

The detailed discussion of this point in the original blog entry covers the issue in much more detail.

You should read it.

It suggested the creation of infrastructure comparable to the way independent groups like the IBO in NYC or the Municipal Research and Services Center in Washington State, the Office of Legislative Oversight for Montgomery County Council, and some of the city auditors/public advocate/controllers like in NYC or SF. And it mentioned some of the exiting civil society groups in DC doing some of this work.

It didn't talk about the no longer extant "Center for Washington Studies" which did some of this kind of work in the 1970s and 1980s.

(One of my dreams is to relaunch the Citizens Planning Coalition into a kind of research and action center comparable to groups like MAS or Center for Urban Future in NYC or the SF Planning and Urban Research Assn. in the SF Bay area, or Regional Plan Assn. in Greater NYC.)


By contrast, I am always surprised that so much of DC's legislation isn't accompanied by some serious research products.

The other reason for some independence of these efforts, like with the auditor in SF or IBO, is that Council-generated research, like Executive Branch-generated research, can be gamed and not independent.

A perfect example is the way the legislation by CM Orange for the RFK site specified/mandated the program and outcomes, rather than specifying the creation of a robust and objective planning process which would come up with scenarios, etc.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

charlie, good point about arlington, but it's more -- based on population -- equal to 3 DC wards (each ward represents about 80,000 people) and they have 5 reps.

When you count the DC at large people (who don't really provide all that much support for ward specific activities) it's probably about the same.

Arlington is an interesting contrast to DC. There, because everyone is at large, the at large members do provide geographically bounded services and input.

In DC, there is a gentleman's agreement that at large representatives don't mess with ward-specific activities.

So to me, at large people have a lot less accountability in DC than the geographically-bounded ward councilmembers.

It's said that if ArCo had district-based reps back in the 1960s, they never would have approved the pro-transit land use use intensification changes.

2. the thing about ANCs as geographies for ward representation is that for the most part they are too small.

3. I should have referenced my councilmember platform piece, which makes recommendations for creating various ward-level committees (it would be interesting to see how they would function in the face of two councilmembers) and bringing all the ward ANCs together on a quarterly basis (maybe 3 times/year is enough).

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

(and yes, re charlie's point about DC legislative staff, it's much bigger than the staff for the councilmembers in the other jurisdictions. MoCo, Fairfax, and PG are all significantly more populous than DC.)

from the councilmember platform piece:

Civic participation

Rearticulate the councilmember/council office around facilitating civic participation, self help, community improvement, strengthening civil society, strengthening community and the performance and success of neighborhood organizations throughout the ward

Support the maintenance and strengthening of neighborhood associations

Offer on a regular basis capacity building efforts/trainings for residents and organizations (e.g., Build a Better Block, How to Turn a Place Around from the Project for Public Spaces, Main Street commercial district revitalization, etc.)

Prioritize training and support for the improvement of the functioning of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

Consider small stipends for Commissioners. Ensure that all ANCs follow city rules about committees and opening membership on committees to non-elected residents.

Convene a Ward 4 ANC "Assembly" every quarter where all the ANCs meet together, with Councilmember Office, interested residents, capacity building, the sharing of best practices, and the development of coordinated policies and actions

Integrate residents into commercial district revitalization planning initiatives

Support tactical urbanism projects, parklet development, etc. and similar initiatives promoted by residents and stakeholders

Create a small grants program to support neighborhood improvement projects (e.g., Toronto Bicycle User Groups, London Cyclist Campaign ward-based programming, Transport for London community cycling grants, Savannah's "Grants for Blocks" program)

Create Ward committees equivalent to DC Bicycle Advisory Committee, DC Pedestrian Advisory Committee, etc. to focus attention of Ward Councilmember, residents, Executive Branch on needed improvements

Acknowledge and designate the Ward 4 Education Alliance as the councilmember-citizen committee on ward education issues

Sponsor annual Clean up day-community day (use Keep Australia Beautiful Litter Index as a metric) for the ward with post-event meal

Organize and deliver community events throughout the year (neighborhood walks, biking, etc.), leveraging parks and other civic assets in the ward, focused on building community

Sponsor ward-wide and neighborhood-specific bike ride and walks (e.g., Fort Worth, WalkArlington, Los Angeles CicLAvia as examples)

Assist in the development of neighborhood days and festivals, such as the Celebrate Petworth Festival

Sponsor annual community organization fair to introduce interested residents to nonprofits, city agencies

From "Councilmember services"

Appropriate ward budget/constituent services funds through participatory budgeting technique practices (engaged citizens make the decisions, collectively, about who gets what, not the councilmember)

Create a “Democracy House," a center for involvement in public and civic life in the ward. If the city provided ward council offices, such a facility could also offer space for community organizations, meeting space, etc., but space would be managed using participatory techniques independently of the Councilmember/Ward office

From "Planning"

Create ward-wide pedestrian, bicycling and transit committees made up of residents and stakeholders (the first two parallel city-wide committees) to focus resources and advocacy on ward needs and alleviating gaps in service

From "K-12/Public Education"

Designate a ward council-committee on education (e.g., the W4 Education Alliance as this community committee) comparable to the creation of other ward-wide committees on bicycling, transit, etc

At 10:38 AM, Anonymous rg said...

I am as into DC Statehood and full representation in Congress as the next person. I am meh to hostile about the stadium (no public dollars, many better ways to use that space).

But neither issue, at the end of the day, really impacts my day-to-day quality of life.

I lived a rich, varied and fulfilling life when a professional football team plays in DC, continued to do so since they departed for Maryland, and, barring a major illness, will likely to continue to do so whether they come back to DC, stay in Maryland or move to Virginia.

Similarly, the case for full home rule and full voting representation for DC is a non brainer and the lack of both is an injustice. But the lack of progress on that front has not really impacted my day-to-day quality of life.

Transit, however, has a MAJOR impact on my day-to-day quality of life. More importantly, it has been critical to the revival of the District and is crucial to its future well being.

So, yeah. Priorities.

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous rg said...

All of that said, all of your ideas are excellent. But, I get that the Mayor wants to keep it simple. I suppose she would argue let's get statehood first and then worry about that other stuff. Which is a fine strategy. But I wish she was instead thinking about the best strategy to bring Metro back to good repair, build a separate Blue Line, and expand the streetcar system (in dedicated lanes). She really seems to have no vision for DC. Which probably explains the focus on statehood and a new stadium for Dan Snyder - when in doubt, DC politicians will default to voting rights and football to mask the lack o fa coherent agenda, cover a lack of vision, or distract from a scandal.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I will break this up in two to follow your lead.

Last point first, "keep it simple."

Yep, I understand that but for the most part, and I would think that this is your experience in working with governments too, on a generation by generation basis, you only get one bite at the apple.

There isn't enough organizational and social and political capital to keep on with constant change and "continuous process improvement."

So a New Columbia gets created. That will take an incredible amount of effort. There isn't the room in the agenda to tinker with the structure.

And then it will be a few more decades before people get around to change.

The Home Rule Act is a perfect example. It's been 40 years...

Therefore, I am a proponent of get it right the first time.

... which as we know, isn't much of a priority for elected officials, at least around here.

At 11:02 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt priorities and transit. OMFG! The city's competitive advantage and unique selling proposition is intextricably intertwined with transit/a system of sustainable mobility/sustainable mobility platform.

When you have the Sec. of Transportation threatening to shut down the heavy rail system, um, that signifies major crisis.

So why have DC elected officials been so bereft of vision on transit generally, and in terms of transit operations, letting the slow train wreck of Metrorail continue to gain momentum.

E.g., the crash in 2009 should have been a wake up call. Instead, today, unimaginably, it's even worse.

It's not that I don't like dire warnings, but at some point, I am not sure that such a threat by the Sec. is "helpful." But I feel similarly to a lot of the public statements by the DC Dir. of Transportation.

Hey, I am critical and direct, but I like to believe it is because I am oriented towards improvement, better outcomes, etc.

I don't see that as an end goal in some of the statements.

I understand the cascading failure of Metrorail, all the systems have been let go to the point of consistent failure. (And by systems I mean people too, not doing their jobs. E.g., improperly contained "jumper cables" on the third rail are about a failure in procedures and maintenance, not capital investment.)

But there is really no excuse. Metrorail is the only transit system in North America experiencing significant declines in ridership.


the stadium is of course, a whole other problem. Fortunately, it looks like the team is more interested in Virginia anyway.

At 11:05 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

e.g., grandstanding vs. contributing to improve the outcomes = the recent hearing by Congress on WMATA.

The Republicans wanted to score political points.

What happened to improving outcomes, generating learning to improve practice going forward?

At 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

being someone who was born here and from a very old time DC family- I must say that a lo of the focus on DC statehood is bullshit and concocted mostly by activists who are either first generation or not from this city. Indeed it is unfair- but there are other aspects of DC's relationship tot he feds that are worse for our people here. One aspect- being forced to " serve" on federal grand juries- DC citizens are called up far more often for this onerous and unnecessary burden more than any citizens of the states- and yet we have no vote in congress. Grand juries are in general an obsolete institution and have been abandoned by all English speaking countries for many decades. We have a moribund legal system that is both antiquated and resistant to innovation. Get rid of this stupid obligation NOW.
Another thing- I have some 3 - 4 generations of men in my dad's family from DC who go back to the civil war who were US veterans- and common veterans benefits were often denied to DC citizens. My father often spoke out about how DC veterans of WW2 were denied bonus payments that all of the states- and territories- we given. We had no one standing up for our boys.
another item- even as a civilian in DC you can be subject to military justice and in DC under emergencies the government can subject civilians to marshal law more easily than anywhere else. This may not seem like it is relevant- but it can have dire implications. During the Vietnam War protest era- many civilians were arrested by national guard troops and herded into large encampments like during MayDay 1970 at RFK stadium. My sister was stuck in that place for days when she got nabbed during the protest. Many ordinary non- protestors also got grabbed off of the streets and arrested during these times.

OK one more- the WaPo in a lucid moment yesterday put out a story about a courageous woman in Hill East who is suing the feds for not releasing information about convicts- and tracking of felons who have raped and murdered people in the neighborhood and are released capriciously. This is yet another example of how the feds casually abuse the rights of people in DC. I applaud her.

Finally here is my two bits- I am against statehood and all for territorial status for DC. Give us a governor , control of our budget, and no federal taxation. And expand the borders of the city to the inside of the beltway. This will give us 3 million people and place us on the map.


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