The Importance of Civility

 

“It is the willingness to listen. The thing I fear most is the absence of civility; I don’t fear the argument.” –Leon Botstein, President Bard College.

I saw that quote a few weeks back while on a business trip and it resonated with me because I think Mr. Botstein nailed so much of what’s wrong today.

I don’t think we are willing to listen anymore—certainly not to anyone that we disagree with. We seem to want to assign bad motives to those on the other side of an issue and make a beeline toward the yelling.

Like the President of Bard College, I fear the absence of civility because if we aren’t civil what’s left other than a spiral to violence?

We are at a precipice in America. And we best be careful. Because when you dance on a cliff you might find yourself slipping into an abyss that’s not so easy to climb out from.

So as I wandered the hallways of the Las Vegas Convention Center marveling at the elaborate exhibits at the International Council of Shopping Centers—the new retailers, the cutting edge technologies, the new and wildly creative food and beverage concepts and the dizzying array of deal making—I couldn’t help but feel both excited and worried.

On so many levels, the future looks bright.

The bar is being raised everywhere you look in business and technology.

Is it all good?

No.

We went to a local Walmart when I came home and we watched everyone struggle to scan their own items and I thought “you know I don’t work here, this isn’t efficient and where the heck is the cashier?”

But a lot is good….the plant based burgers that taste like the real thing, the marvelous places design is taking us, the amount of computing power we walk around with when we carry our cell phones and we always carry our phones don’t we?

But the worrisome part is the human part. How we relate to each other.

When we were in Vegas my hometown went to war—at least on Facebook– over a proposal by iPic to add a rooftop restaurant/bar to their new location in downtown Delray.

I can argue both sides of the issue and I see where both sides have some good points. So a good debate/argument would have been fine. One where we listen, one where we decide what’s best for Delray. But on social media that’s not how things play out.

While there were some good arguments articulated, there were a raft of disturbing comments as well.

In the spirit of Jimmy Kimmel’s “mean tweets” segment— in which celebrities read aloud comments made by online trolls—

I’ll share a few. With some commentary of course.

“It’s all about developers BUYING Commissioners!”

 (Comment: there’s no evidence of bribery and if there please alert the authorities.  iPic is not a developer and this is a tired argument used whenever someone proposes a project. I especially love it when someone who lives in a project that was protested when it was proposed makes this argument. I can’t help but think, if the commissioners of their day had listened, you might not live here.)

“I pic (sic) can go to hell in a handbag. They can’t cry over spilled milk. Bieng (sic) underhanded got them no where, and good! (Comment: the logic is almost bad as the syntax).

“So glad I left Delray….when the Yankees took over…”

(Comment: I’ve seen this tired trope a few hundred times, sometimes New Yorkers are used instead of Yanks, but as a New Yorker I get the not so veiled message: this place was Eden before the New Yorkers came here and ruined it. Not only is that a horribly flawed argument, it’s often made by people who are in business as if Yankees don’t buy homes, cars, furniture, meals, financial products etc. There’s one realtor I will never do business with because he just loves to insult New Yorkers. Now that I know what he thinks of me, I figure there are many other good realtors who may appreciate my business and referrals. Is that petty? Maybe. But if I was his broker, he’d be out the door in a New York minute).

I can go on and honestly this last spasm of nasty wasn’t as bad as some others that I have seen. It’s why I use Facebook to share pictures of dogs and my blog—while avoiding the various groups and pages that feed the divide rather than foster debate. For the record, I was texted “screen shots” of the quotes I shared until I begged the sender to stop. I got the drift.

Bottom line: there has got to be a better way.
Because I don’t think the current way is really working here or elsewhere We don’t seem happy as a nation, we don’t seem to be solving problems (as a society) and we don’t seem to be united on much these days.

As a former elected official, I wrestled with some similar challenges. But it seems social media has taken it to a new level of mean.

The commission’s I served on tried to find ways to connect and to foster respectful debate. Sometimes I think we did and sometimes we fell short.

We urged the chamber of commerce to get involved, we tried to create a safe environment at city meetings, charrettes, town halls etc. and we tried to introduce neighbors to each other through “neighborhood dinners.”

Was everybody happy?
Not on your life. (And I have the emails to prove it).

But we tried, and we also understood that you can’t make everyone happy. You have to make decisions and that means some people will walk away fuming. It goes with the territory.

But most of us on the dais, endeavored to raise the level of debate, to keep it fact-based and to do what we felt was best for the long term good of the community. Ultimately, it’s up to the voters and history to decide whether leaders at any level succeed.

But ultimately, it is about civility. The ability to work with our fellow citizens is essential to a healthy and sustainable democracy. Community begins to fall apart when civility crumbles.

Let’s not fear the argument. Let’s fear the absence of civility.

 

 

 

Trust & Confidence Make The Difference

and also lunch and dinner.

and also for lunch and dinner.

America is a politically divided nation.
But there’s a few things Americans agree on when it comes to the federal government.
It can’t be trusted.

It’s wasteful.

And it’s led by people who say and do anything to get elected and then abandon those promises to serve special interests.

Is the same dynamic infecting local government as well?
A new study by NYU Professor Paul Light, a recognized expert on public service, concludes that almost 70 percent of Americans say the government needs major reform, even though there is a wide divide on what needs to be done and how to get there.
As an old political science major, I find the study interesting.
But this blog focuses on local issues and so I always try to view findings through that prism.
Does this national trend threaten the reputation and trustworthiness of local government?
About a decade ago, I was part of a small group of local mayors who founded the Florida League of Mayors. It was an offshoot of the Florida League of Cities and the organization tried to capitalize on surveys at the time that found  Floridians had enormous trust in local government and that mayors especially had the confidence of citizens.
People might have been wary of Tallahassee and may have been disgusted by Washington but they liked their local governments.
Trust and confidence in your City Hall is an often underrated asset.
And it works both ways: citizens obviously win when they have faith that their tax dollars are being spent wisely and that their local officials can solve problems and seize opportunities. And those who work in local government win too when their citizens support and trust them. They can safely innovate and they can feel confident that their citizens support them in what can be very difficult jobs.
There was a time when Delray stood out in this regard. A time when over a thousand citizens volunteered for the Police Department, raised money for public safety budgets, voted to go into debt and raise their taxes to fund community projects and generally felt that City Hall was an agent of progress, a place where problems were solved and where you could find answers and support.
City staff was outcome oriented and not mired in process. Things got done: Small things–kitchen permits, sea grape maintenance, leases for key non-profits etc.
Big things got done as well–the Decade of Excellence, the creation of a Community Land Trust, the adoption of a Downtown Master Plan and more.
How do big and small things happen? What makes progress possible?
In a word: culture.
Not the kind that might describe art and music, but rather the kind that allows for collaboration, creativity, compromise, compassion, civility and empathy.
A good culture is built on trust and accountability–those two words are not mutually exclusive. You can have both.
When you have a good culture in your town, there are no limits to what can be accomplished.
The best leaders I have seen empower people. And the best outcome you get from a culture of empowerment is confidence and momentum.
Positive momentum is immensely powerful. It creates special cities. When you believe in what your doing and you have the confidence to venture great leaps occur.
I started writing about Delray Beach in 1987.  I hear many people around town comparing this era to the 80s. It’s not a good comp as they say in real estate.

Some say the level of dysfunction and rancor among commissioners is comparable to that era. Some say it’s not as bad, some say it’s worse.
My take: the 80s were rough here, marked by crime, drugs, blight, instability at City Hall and racial tension.
But some big things got started. Some important seeds were planted. The first historic districts, the launch of Old School Square, the creation of a CRA, a major effort to improve local schools, the seeds of Pineapple Grove, Visions 2000 and the Decade of Excellence.
Pretty great stuff. And yet…what do people remember as much or maybe more than the achievements? They remember the revolving door of managers and department heads, the backbiting among elected officials and the sense that other places were thriving and we were stuck.
And then it changed.
The culture that is…a new crop of commissioners and a new mayor were elected, stability returned–civility too. Progress happened and Delray was on its way.
Delray developed a brand as an innovative city, a pacesetter, a good place to work, a good place to live and a good place to invest. Fun, vibrant and  entrepreneurial were among the words often used and bus loads of people from other cities came here to see how “it” was done.
So what’s the buzz now?
Citizens suing the commission over a charter violation because warring elected officials cannot compromise.
A revolving door of managers and department heads.
Major private investments delayed, pronounced dead or in costly litigation.
Residents complaining about a toxic culture and how hard it is to volunteer in this city. Yep, how hard it is to volunteer because of a culture of toxic politics on the commission.
2017 is a New Year and a chance to turn things around. It can be done.
We’ve done it before.

If we do, we will solve problems and seize opportunities. If we don’t, we risk 30 years of progress and more important –our future.
It’s time for a change. If you love Delray as many of us do, it’s time to get moving. We stand for what we tolerate. And right now we are tolerating a whole lot of nonsense.

Post Thanksgiving and Still Thankful

Still vibrant after all these years.

Still vibrant after all these years.

A friend of mine sent me an old Power Point a few days before Thanksgiving.

They were combing through the archives and came upon a presentation a bunch of us gave in 2003 at a conference called Transforming Local Government.

The Power Point chronicled the city’s efforts to craft a Downtown Master Plan in 2001 and the hard fought efforts that were made to involve the community in the vision.

The old photos brought back a flood of memories—there were many faces I hadn’t seen in a while. Some people have moved away. Some people have passed away. Many are still involved; others were once deeply involved and have now faded from the scene.

Accompanying the email was a note: “I had almost forgotten how far this city has come. I had almost forgotten how much was accomplished.” Indeed.

In the rush of time, in the hectic pace of our lives and the blizzard of “stuff” we have to deal with—we too often sacrifice perspective and appreciation.

We don’t stop to be present, but we also don’t slow down to look back or look ahead.

I think to be a healthy, balanced person we need to do all three: appreciate the moment, be grateful for what we’ve experienced and plan for the future with a hopeful heart.

I think the same goes for communities, businesses and organizations.

It’s wise to appreciate where you are on the journey—this very moment when you just made something happen in your city, when you just inked a sale for your company, booked a great act for your arts organization or hit send on a piece you are about to publish.

As I looked at the power point slide show, I caught a photo of my daughter at age 11. Sam is soon to be 27 and is now teaching special education in Tampa. But in this slide she was still my little girl, ponytails, glasses, peasant dress working at a table with other kids drawing their vision of what they wanted their hometown downtown to look and feel like.

I wonder where some of these young people are today. Are they still in Delray? Did some of them go off to school and come home to start families here? Are we doing enough to make this place their place? Are we thinking about the future? Their future? I saw some photos of some older residents who have passed and I smiled. They were old many years ago and still found it important to participate, to care, to plan for a future they must have known they might not see.

After viewing that long presentation, I took the dogs and took a long walk through a park.

It was a glorious Florida day—perfect temperatures, perfect, peaceful.

Dogs live in the moment and have so much to teach us if we care to look. But I also believe they are clued in to our emotions and moods. My mood was an odd mix of happy and reflective. The dogs were just happy to be out and sniffing around. So was I.

I’m not immune to the headlines—venomous politics, heroin, crime, poverty all of which weighs even heavier (if that’s possible) during the holiday season. But…I also found myself feeling good about where I am and where I live.

I thought about how privileged I was to be given an opportunity to serve a community…my community…this community especially.

It wasn’t easy. And if they tell you it was, they weren’t there.

But wow was it ever good.

That old power point—from a place far, far away and yet right around the block, was a reminder of what can be accomplished when you capture positive energy, ask people to work together and dream of a better tomorrow. Did we get all we dreamt about? No, you never do. Nor should you.

But we did move the needle…

We built something special. More importantly, we had something special. I think it’s called love of community. I think it’s called civic pride, optimism and belief. If you collect those ingredients, I assure you there is nothing you can’t do. If you tolerate the opposite—hatred, blame, negativity and distrust—you put it all at risk.

The beauty of life, business and community is there is always more to do. For that we ought to be thankful. It’s motivation to pursue progress.

I believe the best is yet to come but that statement comes with a big caveat: only if we harness the power of neighbors coming together and working toward a better tomorrow.

Sounds hokey? Maybe to the cynics, but those of who believe know it works.

 

 

Building a Front Row Culture

Seth Godin rocks

Seth Godin rocks

I’m a huge fan of the author/blogger Seth Godin.

Not only does he write amazing books (“Purple Cow”, “Linchpin” etc.) he blogs every single day. And most days, he hits it out of the park. That’s just remarkable.

Last week, he floored me with his blog entitled “Front Row Culture.” Here it is…

“The group files into the theater, buzzing. People hustle to get to the front row, sitting side by side, no empty seats. The event starts on time, the excitement is palpable.

The other group wanders in. The front row is empty and stays that way. There are two or even three empty seats between each individual. The room is sort of dead.

In both cases, the CEO or the guest speaker is going to address the group for an hour. But the two groups couldn’t be more different.

The first organization sees possibility; the second sees risk and threat. The first group is eager to explore a new future; the second group misses the distant past.

The truth is this: it’s possible to hire for, train for and lead a front-row organization. And if you merely let entropy take over, you’re going to end up with the second, lesser, failing organization instead.

Worth saying this as clearly as possible: The culture, the choice of front row or back row, is a choice. It’s the result of investment and effort.

Where would you rather work?”

I read that blog at least five times. And then I thought, not only is this thinking applicable to businesses but it applies to cities as well.

“Where would you rather work”, can easily be replaced with where would you rather live?

For me, the difference between a “Front Row” culture and lethargy is the difference between aspiration and fear.

I’m attracted to communities that aspire.

I’m attracted to cities that have vision.

I like places that are willing to experiment and open to new ideas.

I think the cities that work are those that emphasize outcomes over process. Sure, you need rules, ethics, bidding and procedures but those procedures ought to facilitate outcomes, not hinder progress or change. We can nitpick or we can progress.

It shouldn’t take 20 attempts to issue an RFP and it shouldn’t take years to approve a project. You ought to be able to get a fence permit fast and you ought to be able to grab an attractive investment and entitle it quickly so you can be ready for the next one.

Front row cultures empower residents, business owners and public servants. Places that aspire enable and encourage people to solve problems and chase dreams.

The focus needs to be on creating opportunities for current and future residents—you always have to be focused on the future.

“What’s next”? is always the key question.

Complacency is a killer. Aspiration and possibility trumps fear and  dysfunction and creates quality of life and place.