NYC Serenade: My Springsteen Obsession

“If the Beatles were about love and the Stones about sex, then Bruce is about hope. And hope springs eternal…as in Springsteen.” –Elliott Murphy, singer-songwriter.

In a few days, my wife and I will be making a pilgrimage to NYC to see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway.

While we are a hyperlocal blog, I ask for your indulgence because I want to spend a few moments on E Street, where I have lived off and on since 1975, when I was 11 and “Born to Run” was released.

The album is a classic. And I was instantly hooked on all things Bruce.

My Springsteen fixation has lasted 43 years and it is safe to say that it will be with me—happily—for the rest of my days.

My close friends know how much I love music—a wide range of it—at least in my mind.

Classic rock, 70s music, 80s music, pop, 60s music, disco, New Wave, Sinatra—even Neil Diamond—to the consternation of my wife and my ultra-cool friend Pame’ Williams.

(Just as an aside, there is nothing wrong with Neil Diamond. No one else can sing about chairs (“I am, I said”) and E.T. (“Turn on Your Heartlight”) like Neil and make it sound good—to my ears anyway.

But I digress.

My big five are the Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Beatles and Bruce; especially The Beatles and Bruce.

Sadly, while I have unbridled passion for music, I have absolutely zero talent. I can’t even play air guitar, but still I cannot imagine a life without music.

From an early age, I’ve found inspiration, solace, joy, motivation and a hundred other useful emotions from listening to great artists from the Allman Brothers to Warren Zevon.

But Springsteen is a touchstone. He’s the well, the mountain top, the apex— for me anyway.

His songs are cinematic, his writing is poetry mixed with journalism and his live performances are indescribable.

I can’t wait to experience his genius in a small venue.

So now the local part…Consider this:

-I built a talk I gave to Creative Mornings at the Arts Garage around the magic of his songwriting. The topic: genius. You can see it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5sz9scEoZ4

 

-E Street Band drummer “Mighty Max” Weinberg lives in Delray, played a benefit at the Arts Garage, loves Caffe Luna Rosa, has read our downtown master plan and has become a friend. They say never meet your heroes because you’ll be disappointed, but the truth is Max is just a great guy.

-Inspired by Bruce’s first album “Greetings from Asbury Park”, I based the design of the cover of my book “Adventures in Local Politics” on the album’s iconic poster card.

-Local event producer Bern Ryan might be an even bigger fan than I am—hard to imagine—but he’s seen Bruce and the E Street Band all over the world, in Asbury Park and on Broadway. Bern has warned me that three songs into “Springsteen on Broadway” that we will be in tears. (I cry when I read a Hallmark card so Bern’s probably correct).

Anyway, I don’t expect that everybody will get my happy obsession.

But let’s just say that music that touched my soul at age 11 resonates even more as I grow older.

Hope does spring eternal—and Springsteen’s music provides me with a reservoir of hope.

 

 

An Evening @ Bourbon Sprawl

Note: Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to a wonderful group of urban planners, activists, bloggers, architects and redevelopment advocates at an event known as Bourbon Sprawl on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. It’s a great group and I thought I’d share some of my presentation from that evening. It was followed by great conversation.

Like Tip O’Neill— I’m a firm believer that all politics are local…and like many Americans —both Democrats and Republicans—I believe that Washington D.C. is broken…unable to solve problems, unwilling to collaborate, unable to compromise and challenged to seize opportunities.

So if we are going to solve problems—whether inequality, climate change or race relations—we are going to have to do so on the local level.

If we are going to have successful communities we have to get our cities right…and in order to get our cities right we need to attract the best and brightest to public service—both on a staff level, a volunteer level and as elected officials.

If we can do this—there is no doubt in my mind that our cities, towns and villages will succeed. But if we don’t—there is simply no way our communities will thrive.

I’m sure of this…because I have experienced it in Delray Beach where I have lived for 30 years and I have seen what switched on leadership can do in cities large and small in a variety of geographies…unfortunately, I have also seen what corrosive “leadership” can undo or prevent and it’s not pretty.

The challenges and opportunities facing our communities today are complex….they require serious thinking by serious people. And I often wonder if our “system” is designed to attract the polar opposite personalities…

I have seen what wins local, state and national elections—and it’s a combination of fear and blame. We are told what to be afraid of and we blame our opponents for causing the problems. But we never seem to get around to solutions…we never talk about collaboration, compromise or the need to marshal our resources to either make things happen or to begin to solve problems that threaten our future…

We are here the day after the most expensive House election in American history….$50 million spent—mostly on negative advertising—to elect a single representative— who regardless of who won—would most likely have a negligible effect on the issues facing our nation….the content of that spending will be forgotten in a few days and then the fundraising begins again….an endless cycle. Can you imagine what $50 million could do in your community…if it was invested in start-ups, non-profits, placemaking, research, science and education? Do you think the impact would be greater than $50 million spent on attack ads?

We seem to be caught in an endless spiral toward the bottom…and we have created an atmosphere in which serious people avoid the public square, walk away from public service and in many cases fail to exercise the basic pillar of our Democracy…the right to vote.

There was a time when small towns might have been somewhat immune to this disease… I’ll tell you about my own story in Delray Beach…the basis for my book, Adventures in Local Politics… I saw what good leadership can do…

I moved to Delray Beach in 1987….and the physical gifts our city has, have not changed in those 30 years.

There’s a grid system, good ‘bones’ as planners like to say, a glorious beach and good geography since we have proximity to several regional powerhouses—West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and our next door neighbor Boca Raton.

But Delray was a very different place in the 80s than it is today…I can describe to you the blight, the vacant storefronts, the crime, the drugs and the disinvestment…but instead I will quote one of my best friends a restaurateur who was an early pioneer in Delray….”this town was circling the bowl, before it was saved.”

A colorful quote…vivid, descriptive and accurate. Three words: circling the bowl.. says it all.

So when you do a SWOT analysis of Delray and examine its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats you’ll find that alongside some incredible strengths and opportunities are some daunting weaknesses and threats….schools that struggle, deep generational poverty, racial division, a lack of high paying jobs, a lack of a diverse housing stock, a proliferation of sober homes –many run by irresponsible and exploitive operators, poor citizen participation as measured by a lack of civic engagement and poor voter turnout…

And yet….tremendous value was created….we have a dynamic and vibrant downtown, our tax base is growing faster than most of our neighbors, blighted neighborhoods have seen improvements, crime rates —while still troublesome— were improved, culture and art have taken root and we have seen an improvement in race relations since the 80s, particularly between the Police Department and our minority communities.

This did not happen by accident…or by policies pushed by our county government, our friends in Tallahassee or our representatives in Washington.

It happened through visioning, collaboration, solid execution of citizen driven plans, the adoption of new urbanist principles, and a business friendly government that was focused more on outcomes than process. It happened because of leadership: among staff, elected officials, business leaders and volunteers….

And so I suspect that the rest of our nation’s cities have this opportunity to transform…or to be left behind….it all hinges on leadership….all of it….People matter, more than anything…and we better do what we can to attract the right people to the Public Square and frankly keep the wrong people from the levers of power…

People matter….leaders who empower rather than stifle a community—make progress possible.

Because the word impossible loses all meaning if the right people show up and agree to work together….but the word impossible becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy if the wrong people show up and talented citizens sit on the sidelines or decide that the level of toxicity is too high for them to participate….

Again, my city is a case study….

Because as far as we have come….a CRA district that went from $250mm in value to over $2bn in 30 years, recognition as an All America City, the first city to win the John Nolen award recognizing our implementation of smart growth policies, Florida Trend naming us the best run town in Florida and hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment—we are far from done. And far from being bullet proof….

Every ounce of progress cities make is vulnerable to being rolled back. Every dollar spent can yield a return on investment or a loss….and the headwinds we faced 30 years ago remain headwinds today….schools that struggle, the devastation of heroin, neighborhoods on the brink as a result of bad sober home operators….crime, violence and now profound and embarrassing political dysfunction.

None of these problems are intractable—if you attract the right people to the public square.

But all of them are intractable, if you have a mindset predisposed to failure or lack of collaboration—as we see in Washington and in cities that struggle with toxic politics.

Benjamin Barber—who works at the City University of New York–wrote a book called “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities”.

It’s a manifesto…passionately written and convincingly argued—that local governments are uniquely positioned to save the planet and themselves. I agree with him.

Mr. Barber builds a strong case for an informal parliament of cities, perhaps several hundred strong, which would in effect ratify a shift in power and political reality that, he argues, has already taken place. He sees modern cities as incubators for problem-solving while national governments are doomed to failure.

 

“Because they are inclined naturally to collaboration and interdependence, cities harbor hope,” Barber writes. “If mayors ruled the world,” he says, “the more than 3.5 billion people (over half the world’s population) who are urban dwellers and the many more in the exurban neighborhoods could participate locally and cooperate globally at the same time — a miracle of civic ‘glocality’ promising pragmatism instead of politics, innovation rather than ideology and solutions in place of sovereignty.”

I like the ideals espoused by Dr. Barber…but I am a realist as well.

And so the key to success is not just home rule and collaboration among cities…the key is making sure the right leaders are in the right positions to build cities that are sustainable…and that the right leaders feel supported and nurtured by caring citizens.

So we must invest in leadership, which we are not doing…we must encourage people who are courageous…and we must invest in not only the appearance of the public realm but the attractiveness of the public square..because if the public square is toxic and resembles a sewer—good people will find other ways to spend their time.

That does not mean we shun or discourage debate…but it does mean that we confront the civic bullies that all of us working in public policy are all too aware of but are reluctant to talk about….we have to make it safer—not safe—safer and more attractive for promising leaders to succeed. We have to confront the bullies that rob us of aspiration, inspiration, progress and productivity.

If we don’t….the cities that do— will thrive. And the other cities will wither and die…and there is too much at stake for us to allow that to happen…we have a responsibility to the past, the present and the future.

We should strive to preserve the best of our history, serve our stakeholders today and plan to give future generations a better future…it can be done.

It must be done….

So I will leave you with two ideas….and then I want to talk to you guys…because you are the type of leaders we need to fan out across our region to build great places…

Idea #1: Some university in our county…Lynn or FAU needs to step up and build a Public Leadership Institute…we train doctors, we train lawyers, we train puppies…we need to train public sector leaders…don’t you think that will yield ROI?

Idea #2: New Urbanism, Smart Growth, sustainable development—whatever you want to call it, needs a marketing makeover because it is just too damn easy for NIMBY’s and naysayers to derail progress. We need a political strategy that matches the intellectual underpinnings of what we know to be solid public policy. We are starting to see this with the beginning of a YIMBY movement, but we have a long way to go. If we don’t…we will lose any and all opportunities to create a sustainable future for our kids.

 

 

 

It Don’t Come Easy

I spoke to an urban planning class at FAU last night.
Adjunct Professor Glenn Gromann invited me and I enjoy speaking to students so I said yes. (And it doesn’t hurt when the adjunct professor makes your book required reading…wink, I will work for book sales).
It’s not the first time I’ve had the privilege of speaking to college students. Usually I tell the story of modern Delray Beach taking them through the decisions, policies and leadership choices that brought Delray out of the dumps. We cover the ups and downs, the mistakes and triumphs and the rationales behind decisions that to some may seem counter-intuitive.

I don’t have any formal training in urban planning–but I do have real world experience. I am so interested in the subject that I have read everything I could get my hands on and listened to smart planners, architects, urbanists and good developers at every opportunity. I even created a few–by reaching out, by attending seminars, joining the Urban Land Institute, visiting Seaside, joining the Congress for New Urbanism and studying placemakers like Jane Jacobs and Delray’s own part-time resident Fred Kent, founder of the Project for Public Spaces.

I also understand the politics that go into moving an agenda forward–because change and new urbanism isn’t always embraced. Today, I find myself in the strange position of having to defend policies that clearly worked–that created vibrancy, value, quality of life, jobs, opportunities and future potential if we would just open our eyes to the possibilities. Often, I’m debating new residents who moved here attracted by what they saw (I suppose) but vehemently against everything else and resentful of those who played a role in building our town. It reminds me of the phrase: “I’m in the boat, pull up the ladder.” My main point to them: we aren’t done and we have a responsibility to the future to manage change and do it intelligently.
There are many planning and leadership principles to convey to tomorrow’s planners, developers, department heads and architects: the merits of new urbanism, the importance of visioning, the need to engage the community and the value of making investments. Every city needs to be able to provide running water and trash pickup but the cities that make a ruckus are those that do more: art, culture, dynamic downtowns, sports, festivals, food scenes etc.
We did that.
It took 20 years of hard work by a multitude of people. But it happened.
So I shared that journey. And as many times as I share the story, it never fails to move me. Because I know what it took and I have deep respect and admiration for the people who made it happen and I’m privileged and proud to tell their story and I suppose defend their efforts. Some previously important people (PIPS) go away, I’ve decided not too. It’s my town and I love it.
But I’ve started to add to the narrative. I’ve started to talk about what can go wrong. How cities can give back gains and how as aspiring planners or public administrators having great ideas, state of the art policies and stellar execution won’t be enough to make a lasting and permanent  difference.
In fact, you won’t be able to get to the policy part if you don’t understand politics. I shared how good ideas get squashed and how even sound policies suffocate if the wrong elected officials show up to stifle and or choke the life out of progress.
Students need to understand this. As citizens they need to know this and get involved. They need to vote. They need to run. They need to insist that elected officials serve them, not the other way around.

As prospective planners they need to know how corrosive “leadership” can impact their careers and if they go the private sector route they need to know how this can cost them. How it can break their spirits and their bank accounts.
As a result, they need to know that progress can be ephemeral and they need to be able to articulate to citizens why the planning principles they learn are good ways to build communities and manage growth.
But sadly, good planning principles often don’t cut it on their own.  You need to market those policies, constantly sell their rationales and educate voters as to why your plans and visions make sense.
Take for example, new urbanism or the newer “strong towns” movement. Both philosophies have sound thinking behind them and eloquent manifestos.
But…
It don’t come easy, as Ringo once  sang.
Students need to know that and prepare to engage the future communities they will serve.
Because you can guarantee that regardless of how much success you enjoy or how far you’ve come there will always be forces lining up to stop you and in some cases roll it all back.

We used to call it municipal math…30 years to build, two years to screw it all up, no guarantee you can get it back.
That’s the hardest lesson of all to learn and the most important.

More Adventures…Book Excerpt

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.com

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.com

Some of you may know that I published a book last year. “Adventures in Local Politics” is available on Amazon. A portion of the proceeds are donated to local charities.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Instead of merely livable, I think we need to start thinking about how we make our cities more lovable. When we love something, we cherish it; we protect it; we do extraordinary things for it.”—author Peter Kageyama

 

Great cities find a way to invest and re-invest in the future.

They understand that even when success hits you can never rest. A great city knows that complacency is a killer.

My father and others taught me that in business you have to wake up a little scared each and every day, even when things—especially when things—are going well.

When you achieve some success, there is sure to be a chorus of those who will tell you that you are done—just declare victory and go home. Well… you are never done.

You must constantly innovate, experiment, iterate and scan the horizon for threats and opportunities.

In the public realm, it is important to invest and re-invest. It sends a signal to the private sector that you are serious about progress and growth.

We live in an era where public spending is considered wrong. While wasting taxpayer dollars is indeed wrong, not all public spending should be lumped together. Public investment should be treated as such—an investment that should yield returns.

Some of the returns can be directly measured. Were jobs created? Did the tax base grow? Did crime rates fall?

But sometimes ROI is intangible. Sometimes public investment is made to improve the quality of life in the community, a much tougher concept to measure. Sometimes investments are made with an eye on trying to make people fall in love with their city. Still, we all know that times have changed and spending needs to be prudent—dollars are not infinite.

After decades of abundance, we now live in an era of austerity.

Budgets have shrunk. Wages and benefits are flat or declining. Revenues are down and despite a prolonged funk we still face an awful lot of economic headwinds. In other words, this may be the new normal folks.

And yet, the challenge for cities is to somehow find a way to invest in things that make people love where they live.

Progressive hospitals learned a long time ago that amenities such as gardens; plants; brightly painted walls and murals play a helpful role in their patients’ recovery time and overall health outcomes.

But when it comes to cities, politicians are criticized every time they spend on something “frivolous”—whether it’s public art, a new park, a festival or culture.

Yet research shows that the very things that make cities fun and lovable also make a big difference economically by spurring private investment and increasing the value of homes and commercial properties.

This poses a dilemma because in a time of diminishing resources, politicians cannot be seen as spending unwisely and for good reason. But that doesn’t mean that spending on all the things that get residents emotionally involved in their cities has to stop.

It does mean that expenses such as festivals, sporting events, public art installations, cultural venues etc., have to be looked at carefully.

If special events are tired, then they either have to be revamped as to be valuable again or retired. If new events are to be added, they need to meet a very high threshold; therefore the return on investment must be clear and worthwhile. Still, to say cut it all and just fill the potholes is not the wisest strategy for a city.

Money must be still be set aside for the things that make your city different.

A good tactic might be to take a close look at “lazy assets” and see what can be done to activate them and make them valuable and vibrant.

Regardless, of where you stand on the sensitive issue of spending; one thing is certain—money still flows into city coffers.

Maybe not as much as before, but often times enough to run a great city as long as the spending is highly scrutinized, smartly prioritized and tied to a larger strategy—i.e. building toward a common vision.

In Delray Beach, the city’s renaissance started with public investment tied to community goals gathered through a detailed grassroots visioning process.

Once the public money was committed, the private sector stepped in because they knew the city was serious about getting things done.

As a result, while never formally quantified, it is safe to say that the public’s investment was leveraged many-fold by private dollars.

Simply put, businesses opened and residents flocked to the city as a direct result of public investment.

But that investment must be an ongoing commitment. Which is why it is important to not only just keep up on maintenance and filling pot holes but to keep planning and talking to your citizens about the future.

Your conversation with the community about the future should never cease.

 

Delray Beach came out of its decades-long funk by finding an inclusive way to invest in the community.

In the late 1980s, a cross-section of community leaders gathered for a community-wide visioning process that led to the successful passage of the 1989 Decade of Excellence Bond Issue.

The $21.5 million bond funded a variety of projects in the city’s blighted eastern core and sent a signal that the city was serious about redevelopment. As a reporter covering Delray at the time, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the diversity of the civic team assembled to pass the bond. Black and white, east and west, lifelong residents and newcomers all came together around a common vision of restoration.

Chief among the city’s reclamation projects was Old School Square, an abandoned school surrounded by a rusted chain link fence that sat smack dab in the middle of the city’s downtown.

A visionary leader named Frances Bourque sold the city’s leadership on restoring the old school rather than demolish the 1920s era buildings. She saw charm where others saw blight and that kind of vision and investment can’t help but make waves—in a positive way.

When I reflect back on Frances Bourque’s vision (her genius) really, I realized that in one catalytic project she hit upon a magic formula for cities.

In the 80s, I’m not sure that Delray was certain about what it would take to turn things around. Sure, we had to clean up neighborhoods, fight crime, improve schools and turn some lights on downtown. Every city with those problems knows you have to cover the basics. But even when most or all of those things happened, the city still needed an identity; a reason to fall in love with the place.

One of the most important factors that often get overlooked is the need for a narrative. People love stories; they fall in love with them. And cities that have narratives are often the ones that we remember and that thrive. Austin got a huge narrative boost when South by Southwest and the notion of being the live music capital of the world took root. Santa Cruz’ weirdness—as strange as it sounds—makes it a lovable place. Where there’s success, look for a narrative.

Frances managed to find a civic project that touched on Delray’s past, present and future. Old School Square whose buildings dated almost back to the founding of the city tugged on those who loved Delray’s rich history. It also perfectly matched the city’s appetite in the 80s for renewal and revitalization and it spoke to a bright future, i.e. a place for the town to gather. Absolutely, brilliant; a great narrative.

What emerged was a cultural arts center with a 300 seat theater, a restored gym for community events, and a museum and classroom space for arts classes. The grounds became the city’s gathering place for a diverse brew of festivals, performances and holiday festivities including a 100-foot Christmas tree that draws tens of thousands each season.

Old School Square became the catalyst for the first wave of investment downtown. It would take more than a decade for the downtown to fully flower, but an array of pioneering businesses were lured downtown by the city’s investment in streetscape, paver bricks, decorative lighting etc.

Public investment, coupled with political will and community unity sends a very strong message to entrepreneurs and developers. Consequently, political dysfunction or weakness coupled with community fragmentation sends a very bad message.

Fortunately for Delray Beach, the city was able to string together two solid decades of relative unity on all fronts. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t debate or dissension, only that on the big things—downtown redevelopment, beach re-nourishment, fixing blighted neighborhoods—there was remarkable unity and focus.

When this rare cohesion comes about you can really build traction, unlike communities that start and stop, progress takes off when leadership is aligned. The key is to keep it going because creating a great city takes years.

But progress in turn leads to trust in local government’s ability to deliver. And that is a very powerful intangible. When taxpayers trust their local government they are often willing to fund the things that make people feel in love with a place.

 

 

The Art of Being Quazzed

Best selling author Jeff Pearlman has a quirky interview series called the Quaz and it's awesome.

Best selling author Jeff Pearlman has a quirky interview series called the Quaz and it’s awesome.

Over the years I have often been asked by people whether I was the same Jeff Pe(a)rlman who wrote those great sports books about The Mets, Walter Payton and Barry Bonds and whether I enjoyed working for Sports Illustrated.

As someone who has dabbled in publishing and journalism since 1984 I always wished that I could have said yes. It would have been great to be the best-selling author of “The Bad Guys Won”, “Sweetness”, “Showtime” and “The Rocket That Fell to Earth.” But alas, my writing career, while enjoyable, never reached the heights that my namesake’s did.

When I was mayor, Jeff Pearlman the writer was running for City Council in New Rochelle, NY. We found each other, exchanged advice, became friendly and began an off and on correspondence. I liked Jeff. He was smart, talented, funny and fearless as a writer. Fearless is a tremendous asset as a writer—you just let it fly and it leads to great and memorable content. I’ve always aspired to fearlessness, but often felt that if I expressed what I was thinking I would have to move.

He was the writer who once aspired to be an elected official and I was the elected official who aspired to be an author. So when I wrote my book “Adventures in Local Politics” I reached out to Jeff to let him know about it. He was generous enough to make me the subject of a “Quaz” interview.

The Quaz is a quirky interview feature that runs the gamut from Shark Tank’s Daymond John and a guitarist from Blind Melon to singer Kim Carnes (Bette Davis Eyes) and well now…me.

In between are actors, authors, NBA players, former NFL stars, big wave surfers, Olympians and authors like Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes). It’s a cool bunch, Jeff is very cool guy and I was thrilled to be Quaz #248. (P.S. A Quaz party would be awesome…just saying). Here’s a link to the interview.

http://www.jeffpearlman.com/jeff-perlman/

 

 

 

 

Book Excerpt: Adventures in Local Politics

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.com

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.com

Editor’s Note: The following is an edited excerpt from the book “Adventures in Local Politics” written by YourDelrayBoca co-founder Jeff Perlman about his experiences in Delray Beach, first as a reporter and later as a city commissioner and mayor. We hope you enjoy. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com and at www.dogearpublishing.net. To schedule a talk or a book signing, please contact us through the blog’s comments. A portion of all proceeds are donated to local charities.

 

“I would say leadership starts with complaining and dissatisfaction. But that’s half of it. The other half of leadership is complain and then make it better.” -Mark Pincus, CEO Zynga.

 

 

There can be no success in a city without good, strong leadership. It really is as simple and as complicated as that.

Good leadership can create value, leverage opportunity, inspire action and achieve results far beyond your wildest imagination. Consequently, bad leadership or no leadership is death to a city, business or organization.

Over the years, I have become a student of leadership. I have read books, taken seminars, read case studies and observed good and bad leaders.

Sometimes people mistake leadership for management; they are very different.

Most small and midsize cities are council-manager forms of government, with “weak” mayors and city councils setting priorities for professional city managers and their staffs to execute.

While this system has flaws, it can work, provided that elected officials exert strong leadership and insist on accountability.

Still, there is a clear distinction between leadership and management.

Leadership makes the hard decisions, sets priorities, identifies opportunities, has the courage to confront challenges and the will to follow through when the going gets rough—and the going always gets rough.

In observing leaders, I have come to the conclusion that there are two types of elected officials. There are those who feel being elected is a job to “have” and there are those who feel it is a job to do.

There is a fundamental difference; the former are content to be introduced at every chicken dinner in town, they are essentially in the role to cut ribbons and do whatever it takes to stay there. They are what I refer to as “transactional” officials, in office to cut deals, reward friends and survive. They tend to shun the difficult issues, defer all the tough calls and spend their terms playing dodge ball.

The leaders who make a difference are “transformational” –they seek office to pursue a vision, are willing to take risks and have a healthy –albeit not self-serving–desire to leave a legacy.

Truth be told, even transformational leaders have to make their fair share of transactions—that’s politics–but you’d be amazed at how many elected officials think the endgame is to be re-elected and nothing else.

I have always told candidates that the hard work begins once you’re elected and the job is a lot more than simply doing whatever you have to do to remain in office.

Still, transformational leaders are rarities and therefore should be appreciated and strongly supported. If you happen to be fortunate to get one on your town council or city commission, efforts should be made to surround that person with the resources he or she needs to do what needs to be done to move your community forward.

In most cases, great leadership can overcome weak or ineffectual management—although the experience is sure to inhibit the amount of progress and create frustration for the elected leader. Consequently, the ideal is to marry great leadership with great management, but unfortunately, too few communities hold their government officials accountable. The worst case scenario is a combination of bad leadership and incompetent management; that is simply impossible to overcome.

Part of the problem with finding and nurturing good leadership is that too few people know what it looks like.

Nobody is opposed to great leadership but few communities take the time to actually discuss what it takes to bring it about. Often we fail to monitor leaders and hold them accountable for performance and for promises. Too often, we “suffer” poor leadership and decide to just “wait them out”.

One of the best books on leadership I’ve seen discusses this problem in-depth. In “Why We Are So Bad at Picking Good Leaders” the authors outline seven character traits that great leaders possess.

The rub, so to speak, is that if leaders are missing any of the seven traits, they are doomed to either come up short or fail.

The traits are: integrity, vision, passion, emotional intelligence, empathy, courage and judgment.

That’s as good a list of traits as I’ve seen.

The foundation of all leadership is integrity. We’ve all seen brilliant people loaded with talent and gifts crash and burn because they lack integrity. Similarly, it is hard to lead successfully if you don’t have a burning passion for your city. That flame may burn bright or it may simmer, but it better burn.

When it comes to leading a city, courage also plays a big role.

The beauty of local government is that it is small enough to put your arms around but large enough to be interesting.

In most cities, a simple majority gets it done. In larger governments, ideas have to survive committees, legislative review and executive scrutiny and therefore rarely come through the other end intact.

In local government, if you have an idea and a simple majority on the council agrees, things can change pretty rapidly. In local government, there is room to experiment. For me, that part of city government felt very much like a few of the start-ups I have been involved in.

But the personal nature of local government also means you have to have a fair amount of courage to pursue meaningful progress.

Unlike, state legislatures which vote out of the sight of most of their constituents, in local government you vote down the street from where you live. Consequently, there is no place to hide. That’s a good thing.

Constituents—your neighbors—see you at the grocery store, pumping gas or when you’re out walking your dog. I liked that aspect of local government. As an elected official, it keeps you both honest and grounded.

There’s nothing quite as humbling as running into an irate constituent while you’re wearing ratty gym shorts and walking a Chihuahua named Randy.

Emotional intelligence and empathy go hand in hand. To be an effective leader you need to be able to empathize with the people who are impacted by your decisions. You also have to have the emotional intelligence to be able to read your audience and those who work alongside you. Different people respond to different styles—as a leader it is up to you to discern the most effective way of reaching and connecting with people.

By far, the biggest emotional reward for local leaders is the opportunity to engage with the community.

Every day there are opportunities to connect. It amazes me how few leaders take the time to develop strong ties to the people in their communities. In my experience, I found that being open and accessible paid tremendous dividends personally and politically.

While the personal benefits of making friends and getting to know people are evident, the political ones may not be as obvious—although they should be.

Nothing burns a supporter more than to work hard for a candidate, raise money, open your home for a campaign event, work a poll, wave a sign and canvass a neighborhood only to see your candidate get elected and then shut off communication.

It sounds like that would never happen. But truth be told, I see that very behavior more than I see the opposite. What do you think happens when that same candidate calls you for help during the next election cycle? Click. See you later.

It doesn’t cost much to reach out to supporters via email, a phone call or a quick cup of coffee and yet so many so-called leaders conveniently forget who put them into office.

The best elected officials are servant-leaders and they remember that.

Every.

Single.

Day.

Others get some power and feel that their constituents are there to serve them.

Suddenly, “Joe” insists on being called “Deputy Vice Mayor”—or a state rep refuses to acknowledge your presence unless you call him “leader” because he happened to ascend into the upper ranks of the legislature. It’s appalling—and it happens all the time.

Aside from the intrinsic benefits of being a decent and humble human being, there are real political rewards as well.

Earlier, I referenced how Delray brought on a visionary police chief in 1991. His name was Rick Overman.

Chief Overman was charismatic and brimming with ideas. When he walked into a room, you knew it. He oozed confidence and was exactly what the department needed.

Overman taught me an early lesson that would come in handy time and time again.

“In my job,” he used to say. “It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when; something bad is going to happen. So every day I try to build a reservoir of good will, because someday I know I will have to draw down on that reservoir. When you need it, you want to know it’s there.”

It was a lesson I took to heart and would be leaders would be wise to heed. In a position of authority, where you are called upon to make tough decisions it helps enormously to have strong relationships which enable you to explain votes and strategic directions that may be controversial. In local politics, just as in national politics, issues have winners and losers. Policies impact people, in fact, local government may impact the quality of life of residents more than any other level of government.

So engage, relate, learn, listen, care, and never stop communicating. There’s nothing worse than a politician who only reaches out during election time. Serve your constituents every single day.

One of the more interesting aspects of democracy is the somewhat random nature of how we choose leaders. A common refrain that we often hear is the need to run government more like a business.

On a lot of levels that makes sense, but how many businesses would entrust the CEO position and their entire slate of directors to the randomness of an election in which too often the choice is between lesser evils?

Given that we embrace democracy, perhaps we should work on building a culture in which we actually take the process of selecting candidates seriously.

In some cities, including my own, attempts to do this are sometimes greeted with charges of “grooming.”

While that is not the most endearing term, preparing prospects for leadership positions may be the most important single thing a community can do to ensure sustainable success.

Unfortunately, too many leadership programs fall short and are often nothing more than superficial tours of community programs and facilities. While visiting the courthouse and sewer plant is fine, they are not serious attempts at fostering leadership.

Communities that seek long-term, stable and effective leadership may want to consider a more formal program in which prospective leaders are assessed, evaluated and given in-depth information on what it takes to lead a city or an organization. It’s helpful for aspiring leaders to understand their strengths and weaknesses and to get a true a picture of what is expected of them if they decide to enter the arena.

Businesses large and small wouldn’t dare entrust their future to unproven people, why should cities?

So what would a community leadership development program look like?

I think it could call on past and current leaders to share their stories; the challenges they faced and how they handled issues and opportunities. It may also include the development of case studies which work well in business schools. Some communities scan the horizon and find cities that have solved similar problems. Visiting those cities and meeting the leaders who made a difference is extremely valuable.

Still, there are a number of factors to consider when choosing your leadership.

Aside from formal training, a community ought to consider an aspirant’s track record before handing them the keys to the budget and policy.

Have they served on city boards? Are they involved with local non-profits? Have they participated in community debates or did they just show up out of nowhere? Have they had success in business? If they’ve been involved on boards did they have a good attendance record? Did they do their homework and participate or did they simply get on a board and waste space?

It’s shocking how little scrutiny we give to prospective candidates.

And yet, once elected, we spend time lamenting how bad they are.

The list of traits—integrity, passion, emotional intelligence, empathy, vision, courage and judgment—outlined above is a great starting point to evaluate those who seek to lead your community.

Regardless of your community’s physical assets, wealth or beauty, without great leadership you will never achieve lasting success. Communities that are serious about creating opportunity and building something special cannot ignore this very basic law of cities.

P.S. this leadership law also applies to business, non-profit organizations, schools etc.

Great leadership creates opportunities and builds immense value. Bad leadership or lack of leadership is a killer.

 

Adventures in Local Politics

Cross one item off the bucket list

Cross one item off the bucket list

I wrote a book.
It took me years to finish and I must have started and stopped 100 times but I got it done. Finally.
“Adventures in Local Politics” is a personal story but it’s also the book I was looking for during my seven years as an elected official in Delray Beach.
The shelves are pretty bare when it comes to books on what local politics are really like. Sure, there are plenty of books written by “big city” mayors but most of America is not like New York, Chicago or Boston.
Elected officials in small cities face far different issues than their big city brethren. But the issues are complex nonetheless and personal too.

And if local officials choose to make their terms about something other than playing dodgeball with the tough issues, they can actually make a positive and lasting difference in their communities.
The commissioners I served with called it moving the “big rocks”; a concept we have turned to frequently on this blog.

And in our case, the big rocks  meant tackling attrition and retention issues in our police and fire departments, trying to improve race relations, crafting a downtown master plan, passing a parks bond, moving the library to a more central location (and freeing the old site up for meaningful redevelopment), creating a community land trust, wrestling with workforce housing, passing a parks bond and re-envisioning culture, Congress Avenue and the four corners of Military Trail and West Atlantic Avenue. There was more: beautifying Pineapple Grove, passing and implementing the southwest plan, moving the high school, building a warm and entrepreneurial culture at city hall, revamping our historic preservation rules and encouraging downtown housing while improving communication with our stakeholders.
Am I bragging?

You bet I am. I’m very proud of the team and the hundreds of residents and business owners who invested their time, talent and money to move a city forward. We inherited a great hand from our predecessors and did our best to move the ball forward.
Did we get it all right?

Not on your life.

Did we make mistakes? Yep, a whole bunch. But we got a lot right too.

And I would put our city’s accomplishments up against any city in our region and beyond. We have built a great city. Not a perfect city, but despite our myriad challenges and problems we have an awful lot to be grateful for and our civic pride is well placed.
My purpose in delineating some of the big rocks is to point out the incredible opportunity local officials have if they are willing to seize the moment. If they have vision, courage and the ability to collaborate with their stakeholders and motivate their staff and affiliated agencies and partners they can make a difference.
My book speaks to this opportunity. So while it captures my personal experiences, it has universal themes as well. Such as: Community policing works, but it has to be authentic and a forever commitment. New urbanism principles work if you have the courage to educate residents and design places for people not cars. Community visioning works if you are serious about engaging your community and work hard to bring new voices to the table.
It felt good to finally finish the book and it’s gratifying to speak to local groups about some of the “adventures.”
Local government is the government closest to the people. Washington is broken, maybe hopelessly so (but I remain optimistic). Tallahassee is remote and partisan. Our hometowns are where we can make a difference. But it’s a choice: major in the minor or play dodgeball or move the big rocks.
I’m looking for those willing to take risks and build. I’m looking for uniters not dividers. We have enough of that horror in Congress.
The big rocks are all around. And they are the most fun to move.

Adventures in Local Politics is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com. If you’d like to schedule a talk or raise funds for your group, please email us at perlmanjeff@gmail.com. Portions of the sale of Adventures in Local Politics can be donated to your charity of choice.