Culture & Vision

Vision and culture move the needle…


If you boil it down, Mayors and City Commissioners are responsible for two big things and a lot of little things.
This blog will focus on the two big things.
They are:
Vision and culture.

Those words deserve to be bold because it all flows from those two words.
Everything else—budgets, development, bidding, contracts— suffers if you don’t have a vision and you don’t have a positive culture.

A community’s vision should drive its budget. After all, how do you know where to make investments if you don’t have a vision for your city?

How do you shape development if you don’t know where you want to take your city?

I happen to believe that the best visions are citizen driven, created by a large cross section of stakeholders and implemented by elected officials and city staff.
But it’s the elected officials responsibility to see to it that there is a vision and that the vision is being followed. In other words, elected officials are stewards of their community’s dreams and aspirations.

Frankly, I don’t know how you lead without a vision.

Goals and visions drive everything—where you spend money, what projects you approve, where you allocate time and resources. Having a compelling vision is the best economic development tool imaginable. If you’re serious about making it happen the private investment you need to transform your community will come. Yes it will. You just have to believe and relentlessly focus and implement a compelling vision. (Execution is a key; visions left to gather dust on a shelf are to be avoided at all costs).

As for culture, in this case I don’t mean arts and music (which are also important) I’m referring to the atmosphere in your city.

Culture is the air that we breathe—is it positive, enthusiastic, hopeful, crackling with energy and enthusiasm? Or is it negative, nasty, toxic, untrusting and treacherous?

Is the mood in your city exciting or is it negative or milquetoast? Because while milquetoast may be better than nasty it’s still not good and it’s not going to move the needle in your community.

So when we look at our local leaders, or our state and national leaders for that matter, we ought not settle. We should not compromise. It’s too damn important.

Enlightened leaders change places.

They create opportunities, they change neighborhoods for the better, fix problems, heal rifts, seize the day and meet challenges. We need them.

But we play a role too.
We need to set a high bar.

We need to participate.

We need to vote, state our opinions, talk to our neighbors and help to shape the vision. We also need to hold elected leaders accountable.
We need to insist that they work toward creating and standing for a good culture and a kind community. Nothing else works.

No Way to Run A Railroad

It even has a t-shirt

It even has a t-shirt

I learned a new word this weekend: kakistocracy.
It’s a Greek word and I saw it in Peggy Noonan’s weekly Wall Street Journal column which covered this very strange election season we are stuck (trapped?) in.
The word means government by the worst persons, the least qualified and or the most unprincipled.
Noonan concluded that we are on our way there. I would take it one step further. I think we are there.
Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t standouts in office at every level of government or bright stars on the horizon but let’s face it Congress stinks and many state and local elected officials are lacking.
Inevitably elected officials are judged on results but style counts too.

Maya Angelou may have said it best: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Yes indeed.
It’s hard to get results with a bad style and if your all hat and no cowboy (style but no results) you’ll also fall short.
But one thing is certain, public service is a job to do, not to have. And too few people are willing to take votes that they know to be right because they fear losing their next election. The best elected officials have to be willing to lose if it means doing the right thing. You have to be willing to put it on the line.

The job of an elected official is not an easy one. I’ve only got direct experience on the local level, but I’ve observed state and federal officials and I can comfortably say the jobs are complex.
On the local level, you have to understand municipal finance and taxation, you need to be cognizant of public safety, urban planning, architecture, mobility, labor unions, economic development, ethics, education, social issues, health issues, race relations, the importance of culture and the nuances of your local economy to name but a few. Hopefully, you’ll also value the importance of citizen engagement, the need to attract talent, encourage economic growth and how to position your city in the regional, state and yes national and even international conversation.
On the state and national levels, the list goes on.
So if you are going to do the job, you have to be willing to work hard, do your homework and show up because there are endless demands on your time.
But perhaps the most important skill is leadership.

Why?  Because your success or failure will ultimately depend on your ability to lead, your emotional intelligence, your ability to communicate and connect and how you handle the stuff that’s inevitably going to be thrown at you that you don’t expect.
Success depends on your soft skills,  how you navigate the nuances and most perhaps importantly how you are able to communicate and connect with the communities or constituencies you serve.
And the operative word here is serve. You are elected to serve the people, not to indulge your personal preferences or to have others serve you. Sounds simple, but take some time to study how issues are handled and you’ll often find a deficit of leadership. And if issues remain unresolved a lot of times it’s because elected officials are unwilling or unable to compromise, unwilling to listen or cling to their personal preferences at the expense of the community.
We wouldn’t be talking about kakistocracy if we were attracting stellar leaders to politics.
When was the last time you couldn’t choose in a political race because there were too many good choices?
Wouldn’t it be nice if elections were like visiting your favorite restaurant where there were so many good options you couldn’t go wrong?
Can’t hurt to dream…

But at some point in time, hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll fix what prevents our most capable leaders from running for office. Until then, we will have to content ourselves with too often having to choose between the lesser of two evils. And our Democracy, our communities and our country is too important for that to continue.

An Opportunity to Learn


Editor’s Note: This is our last blog of 2015, we are going to enjoy the holidays and take a break. We do want to wish our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Safe New Year. We have enjoyed the conversation and look forward to more dialogue in 2016. But before we sign off, we want to wish our old friend Randal Krejcarek, Delray’s Environmental Services Director a fond farewell as he leaves for a terrific opportunity. Randal was always a class act, a talented professional and a pleasure to work with. He went above and beyond and he will be deeply missed. He’s just a great guy.

I had lived in Delray Beach for 13 years when I ran for the City Commission in 2000.

For a decade, my job was to cover city government, which meant I attended just about every City Commission meeting, CRA meeting, planning and zoning meeting, DDA meeting and community gathering that occurred.

I rode with cops and firefighters, was involved with the Chamber of Commerce, non-profits such as Old School Square and Pineapple Grove Main Street and served on the Sister Cities Committee. I knew just about every community leader from neighborhood association presidents and union bosses to city department heads and prominent local business leaders. I even knew a great many of the city’s most notorious criminals—and interviewed a few of them in prison.

When I left the paper around ’97, I started my own publications that covered schools, sports, crime and education and got know teachers, principals, School Board members, coaches, athletes, boosters and more cops , volunteers and criminals.

So I thought I knew a lot about Delray Beach when I got elected and I did, sort of.

But I also had gaps in my knowledge a mile wide and 10 miles deep.

I was a well-trained rookie, but I was still a rookie.

I remember an orientation meeting with then City Manager David Harden, where I was handed a copy of the City Charter, a thick budget book and a giant copy of the city’s land development regulations, comp plan and other documents. I barely made it back to the car. I had a similar meeting with then City Attorney Susan Ruby.

When you get elected you are expected to learn the following: municipal finance, land use law, labor relations, pensions, budgets, capital improvement plans, county/city relations, community development block grants, how debt works, municipal law, historic preservation, emergency management policies, municipal insurance and a whole lot more.

The formal education was just beginning—the informal one begins once you’re on the job and truthfully you never stop learning the nuances of leadership. That piece is ongoing with lessons earned and learned from every issue and interaction. It’s a remarkable experience.

Local government even has its own language: LDR’s, the difference between a waiver and a variance, conditional use, something called “smoothing” (a pension term) and my favorite: effluent flows (look it up) because a perk of the job is you also sit on the sewer board for Boynton Beach and Delray.

Some of it fascinated me. Some of it confused me. Some of it made me yawn and some of it was so cool that I wanted to learn as much as possible.

In my opinion, the two areas where city officials should spend their time and develop some chops are land use and budgeting.

Like in any business, cash flow, revenues, expenses, debt service and all that happy stuff is critically important. While you have a city manager, a few assistant city managers, outside auditors and a finance department you cannot be an effective elected official without an understanding of how you fund and charge for government services.

So you need learn to read and understand budgets, monthly financial analyses and year end reports.

I had managed newspaper budgets for a corporate parent and my own small publishing company so I had a basic understanding of finances. In fact, we were so lean I knew my cash position every moment of every day. I knew if I didn’t collect receivables in a timely fashion, those who worked with me wouldn’t be able to pay their bills.

As an elected official, you are in an oversight capacity, so the checkbook resides elsewhere but you learn quickly that you have a fiduciary responsibility and that 60,000 people and all the businesses in your town will come looking for you if things go wrong.

But my favorite part of my municipal education was in the land use arena; planning and redevelopment. I absolutely fell in love with it all—architecture, urban design, streetscapes and what it takes to create a successful downtown.

I read everything I could find—books, articles, magazines, the works of New Urbanist thought leaders –and began to look at cities differently when I travelled. The national Main Street program, Florida League of Cities, Urban Land Institute and American Planning Association were also sources I mined for information and insights.

Back in those days, we would travel to other cities for conferences and to glean ideas and learn from communities that had wrestled with similar challenges. More often than not, we’d take neighborhood leaders and city staff with us so we could learn together. We bonded during these trips which took us out of our everyday surroundings and exposed us to new ideas, approaches and ways to solve problems. We made friends across the country and talked up our city everywhere we went.

In short order, we were hosting groups in Delray to show them what we had done here—hits and misses, triumphs, defeats and lessons learned. It’s gratifying to share experiences with others on a similar path.

Over the years I have been visited by several people who aspire to be elected officials. They ask to meet for endorsements, campaign donations or to see if I would introduce them to people who might get them votes, more cash and endorsements.

I get it. It’s a necessary part of the process. But increasingly, I’m running into people who seem to be less interested in the subject matter and more interested in attaining the office. They seem sadly unaware of the opportunity to make a difference and more interested in personal power.

I pine for those aspirants who do more listening than talking; I observe whether they can stop long enough to seek information rather than just tell me how great and smart they are.

I look for people hungry to learn—who ask questions, who have done their homework about the community’s they seek to serve. How can you serve if you aren’t curious or willing to learn? How can you lead without first seeking to understand?

I run into a lot of people who think they are the smartest people in the room; regardless of which room they are in. I try to avoid them. They can’t learn, because if you are smarter than everyone else what can you learn?

I was uniquely prepared as a result of my newspaper job, but in hindsight, I knew very little. But I did know enough to ask questions and seek knowledge—that’s what reporters do. The better ones anyway.

How else do you learn? How else can you serve? How can you lead if you keep your own counsel?

The answer is you can’t.