A Better Way Forward

In a few days, voters will head to the polls in Delray Beach to fill two seats on the City Commission.

I’ve been observing elections in this town for 33 years now and friends can I tell you something? They are getting worse every year.

Nastier.

More expensive.

Devoid of ideas and vision.

It wasn’t always like this.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

And if we are smart, steps will be taken to change the tone of politics in our community.

Because make no mistake, these kind of campaigns leave a mark or should I say a stain on the soul of our community.

Delray Beach is at a crossroads.

The city needs hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure repairs and upgrades, sea level rise is a real threat to coastal neighborhoods, homelessness appears to be on the rise, our city staff has suffered from rampant turnover (the fire chief quit yesterday) and we seem to have stopped prioritizing economic development—as evidenced by an empty Office of Economic Development and ugly attacks on just about anyone who wants to invest in Delray Beach.

Despite the serious issues outlined above (and there are more) the three biggest issues in this election appear to be the positioning of a valet stand, how to handle traffic coming and going from a popular shopping center and the settlement of a lawsuit related to our Delray ATP tournament, a lawsuit– mind you– that the city was told it had no chance of winning despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Your dollars.

We can and must do better.

Regardless of where you stand, we all seem to agree that Washington is an intractable mess.

The potential for change, solutions and innovation resides in our cities. But it seems our city is sliding more and more into the abyss of division and dysfunction. We are majoring in the minor when we have big rocks to move.

I’m sure the valet stand issue has merit and I know the traffic flow in and out of Delray Plaza is important to my good friends in Tropic Isle. But, there’s more to Delray, much more.

Where’s the vision?

Where’s the aspiration?

How will we weather climate change?

Do we care about jobs, attainable housing, and better schools?

Or is it all about development and traffic?

We act—if you believe the election mail pieces and social media chatter—as if all development is bad, no more is needed and that somehow we can resist change and pretend that property rights don’t exist.

Let’s talk about those issues shall we?

I get it, people hate traffic and congestion.

They also fear over development and losing the charm of our village by the sea. So do I, as do most of the people I know on both sides of the local divide. But we are not having meaningful conversations on these issues. We are yelling past one another. And it is getting us nowhere.

All candidates say they have a cure for traffic—but the truth is they don’t.

Personally, I find I can get around Delray pretty well, but I can’t say the same for Glades Road in Boca Raton or I-95 which can be parking lots.

Is Atlantic Avenue congested? You betcha. A lot of people worked very hard to make it so. You know what the opposite of congestion is? Empty streets and empty storefronts.

So sure, it takes some time to cruise the Avenue, but if you want to zip around town, please use our grid system, it works pretty well. We made a choice years ago to create a bustling, dynamic and vibrant downtown and we pulled it off.

There are trade-offs when you do that; especially when you succeed and Delray succeeded.

A pretty cool little downtown has been created and it has endured through the Great Recession, hurricanes and all sorts of political shenanigans.

So we may have to slow down– especially in season. We may get caught in traffic if we decide to take Atlantic from Swinton to A1A.

Next time you get annoyed—and I get annoyed too sometimes— consider all the jobs that have been created, all the tax dollars that have been generated, all the great businesses that have sprouted and think about how much more your home is worth than the days when this town was known as “Dull Ray”— a time when you could have gone bowling on Atlantic and not hit anything because it was empty and depressed.

So yes, the bridge will go up every 15 minutes or so, but guess what? It does go down and we will make it across. Parking may be tough—but that’s what they call a good problem to have. It means that people are flocking to your city’s central business district ringing cash registers and supporting the local economy.

We can add more parking infrastructure and pay for it too– if we want too. We can move toward solutions on issues big and small if we insist that our elected officials stop focusing on politics and each other and start focusing on serving the community. All of the community—not just their base of supporters.

As for development, I can understand the concern. But I think the way we are having this conversation is all wrong. All we have to show for it is years of frustration and anger.

Here are some facts to frame the situation:

Things change, it’s the only constant.

Property gets developed and redeveloped.

Owners of property have rights to develop that property within the rules set forth in our codes.

We do not allow tall buildings like our neighbors in Boynton Beach and Boca Raton do. But we do allow buildings that are 54 feet in height in some areas of our downtown.

I have never seen a developer get a height variance. Never.

I have never seen them get a waiver for density either.

I have seen developers create ridiculous inconveniences for long periods of time during construction and that’s something that needs to be looked at.

We had one project that took up a block and a half of parking for a decade right smack in front of small businesses and right now we have a hotel project blocking half of Pineapple Grove which damages a lot of very cool independent mom and pop businesses. There has to be a better way.

There also has to be a better way to discuss development and a better way to disagree on the issues without burning each other’s houses down.

We have to elevate the conversation and not make development a zero sum game where either the investor or the residents lose. We can create win-win scenarios but it will require us to agree that we must be civil when we discuss development or anything else controversial in our community.

Just because you favor a project does not mean that you are on the take or corrupt, it might just mean you like the project and feel it’s needed. Conversely, if you oppose something you are not necessarily a NIMBY, unless of course you oppose everything then maybe the shoe fits.

All I know is right now, everyone seems miserable and I think we need to reframe how we discuss these issues.

We have had a few spectacularly crappy developers come to town. They tend to not build their projects, because they don’t have the requisite skill set to do so.

But we have also had some really talented developers work in Delray, a few who have chosen to live here. While we have had a few developers who have acted like strip miners, taking every morsel and giving little to nothing back, many have been extraordinarily generous with their time and their philanthropic donations.

They have created some pretty special projects too. They have contributed to the vibrancy and to the tax base while taking spectacular risk.

If we chase away all development and treat every project as if it will kill Delray–we can count on taxes increasing and needed projects and services not being funded.

We desperately need— and I believe we desperately crave —real discussion on things like design (example: should we have modern homes on historic Swinton Avenue?), traffic flow, floor area ratios, density and uses.

Right now, there is a one way conversation taking place on social media and in the campaigns that tends to be lacking in facts, context and balance. Discussions about our CRA are especially nauseating because that organization has been invaluable to Delray Beach. I admit to bias on that front, but if you scratch beneath the surface on just about everything that has been accomplished in east Delray over the past 30 plus years you will find the CRA as a driving force for good. Has the agency been perfect? Not on your life. But subtract the agency from the Delray story and our story looks a whole lot different and I would argue a whole lot worse.

But everything begins and ends with the five people we elect to the commission. Get it right and good things happen. Get it wrong….well you can figure it out. Either way, we have to improve the tone of the town.

I make this statement based on watching this stuff for 33 years.

The fact that we are locked in a cycle marked by the politics of personal destruction ought to give us all pause. Because this becomes a spiral to the bottom.

Not only will good people not run for office, they will shy away from the process entirely which means serving on boards, volunteering for key non-profits etc. I would argue this is already happening.

Without casting aspersions, we are seeing some of the ripple effects of the nasty political climate in the sheer number of inexperienced candidates who are running for office in recent cycles.

I maintain and strongly advise that the job of city commissioner is not an entry level position. It is hard to be a good commissioner if you have not put the time in to learn about how the city functions, where it has come from and where it’s going.

You can be educated, sincere, driven and caring—but there is no substitute for time spent in the trenches. There are many candidates running this year that we have never seen involved in past visioning exercises, key boards and organizations. They are introducing themselves to the community in one breath and asking for your vote in the next.

It is important for candidates to have experience before they are given the keys to a $100 million plus budget and responsibility for major decisions that impact our quality of life and our future.

It is also important for the community to get to know the candidates. Do they play well with others? Will they show up at meetings, will they do their homework, can they listen? If they lose a vote, will they move on or will they declare war on those who disagree with them and spend their terms seeking revenge?

There’s simply no way of knowing if we have not seen how they approach community service.

By the way, there are examples for every terrible scenario I just listed—commissioners who are AWOL at key meetings and commissioners or their surrogates who hunt, harass and bully those with whom they disagree.

I am not advocating that we turn politics into some sort of genteel afternoon tea; that’s unrealistic and it never existed even in the good old days. So if you are a bully you should be called out for your behavior. If you have a past you probably should expect it to surface and if you have voted poorly or made mistakes you should be called to account.

Issues are fair game too.

Tough debate on the issues is fair, but we seem fixated on personalities, feuds and alliances.

Lately, I haven’t seen much substantive debate. So I really can’t tell where the candidates stand other than they oppose taxes, crime, traffic and developers. I don’t see any real solutions or any new ideas.

We need both.

Desperately.

I would add that we need aspiration as well.

If you’re ambition as an election official is to block every project, I’d like to ask what you’d like to see happen. If your unofficial tag line is “I’m in the boat, pull up the ladder” when it comes to housing projects, I’d like to know what we tell young families, police officers, teachers and our kids when they ask us where they can live in our city.

I’d like to know how you will pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure repairs and needed services if you don’t build the tax base, down zone already underdeveloped corridors and pledge to cut taxes. If you think you can, you are either lying, terribly naive or you are a magician. I haven’t met too many magicians running for local office.

I think you get the gist.

Wednesday is the day after the election. That’s when—win or lose—we ought to begin a new and better conversation.

The current model isn’t working.

It’s not village like, it doesn’t address our needs and it won’t position us to seize opportunities or solve problems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Tis The Season For Politics

Editor’s Note: We will be taking a few days off for the holidays but will be back with a year end blog on Dec. 30. Have a safe season and thanks for reading!

While most of us are immersed in the hustle of the holidays, others are busy gearing up for the local election season.

They are holding kick-off parties, gathering signatures to qualify for the ballot, raising money and plotting strategy—which typically means carpet bombing those who run against them.

Two commission seats are up for grabs in Delray Beach in March and after a year’s respite we can expect the fur to fly in the New Year.

Sigh.

Heavy sigh.

Call me jaded because I am.

But I don’t expect we will see the local version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates play out over the next few months. And that’s too bad because there is a lot to discuss.

I do expect that we will see a lot of nastiness, division and empty platitudes. When the dust settles we will probably see in excess of $300,000 spent on mail pieces, Facebook ads, signs and robocalls.

Most of it will be ignored.

Some of us will vote—probably more than a typical year (thanks to the presidential primary)—and life will go on.

We will hear lots about traffic, over-development, corruption and how the village by the sea has either been ruined or is about to be—unless of course you vote for so and so.

Sigh.

Candidates will promise to “fight” for us, they will accuse their opponents of being in the pockets of “greedy” developers (developers are always greedy and always corrupting) and they will talk about how they will tame traffic, cut taxes and stand up to “special interests” on behalf of the resident/taxpayer.

Even the candidates who raise money from developers will run anti-development campaigns. They think it’s their path to victory. I’ve always found it interesting and ironic that developers actually fund campaigns that rail against their industry and that calls them damaging and corrupt influences.

Can you imagine doctors funding mail pieces that say they will harm you?

The “principled” (“I can’t be bought!”) candidates will shun developer money and run a grassroots campaign. Some will actually do just that by knocking on doors and golf carting around town meeting voters. Others will ‘talk the talk’ but secretly accept developer money and squirrel it away in some political action committee or third party entity with a Tallahassee address and often no disclosure of donors.

Surrogates will battle it out on social media, essentially talking to each other in echo chambers too often devoid of facts, civility, context or reality. And I’ll say to myself: “self, that’s not what living in a village or a community is supposed to be about.”

We are not alone in our struggles.

America seems hopelessly divided as we head toward 2020—as if we are Democrats or Republicans, progressives or conservatives before we are Americans.

We are not.

Or at least we shouldn’t be.

There was a time—now long ago I’m afraid—where our hometown was a port in the storm. We were a community that worked together, identified problems and then got about the business of solving them. Imagine that radical concept.

 

Not every issue was resolved—maybe none were. And maybe that’s the point.

Maybe building a community is something you constantly have to chisel away at. We are never quite done are we? And isn’t that the fun and purpose of it all—to grow (responsibly), to evolve and to learn— hopefully together.

It sure feels like we have taken a wrong turn.

We’ve become more distant, nastier, more divided, less like neighbors and more like combatants.

It’s reflected in the tone of our politics. And there are consequences. Grave, expensive and lasting consequences.

I’ve seen friends who have proudly worked for the City of Delray Beach thrown out with the trash this year. I’ve seen others who left their jobs earlier than they planned for brighter pastures literally shaking their heads about current conditions.

We can deny it. Or we can own it.

But when you experience the level of turnover we’ve seen, I can assure you it’s not because things are great.

Public employees are not all about the money otherwise they wouldn’t be public employees. Nobody goes to work in local government to get rich and those that do will probably be arrested. Instead, they seek to serve and to be part of something bigger than themselves. Sure, there are clunkers out there but there are so many more talented, smart and dedicated public servants who work or have worked for Delray.

I sure hope this new manager we’ve hired is up to the task because he has a big one ahead of him.

For the record, I’m not blameless.

I’ve written checks that turned into mail that I wouldn’t line my bird’s cage with. But I don’t blame the political consultants, their job is to win. They have diagnosed that if you want to win in Delray Beach you need to go negative.

So the question is did the politics change us or did we change?

Do our politics reflect what we have become?

Again, I’m not blameless.

I’m a critic.

I am jaded.

If you ask me a question I will answer it and if the answer is I think things stink then I’m going to say it or write it and hit publish. And I guess that bothers some people.

I don’t mess with local politics on social media, it’s a waste of time.

But I am happy to engage one on one if asked. I am anxious to listen and learn. I am not willing to spend a lot of time with people who are so entrenched in their views that they are not willing to listen and learn.

My goal on this blog and on the editorial pages of the newspapers we own is to shine a light on the good, the bad and the ugly in our community and we have all three conditions—every place does.

We/I love to write about the people who do good in the neighborhood but we won’t gloss over the bad actors and outcomes either. We love to cheer lead when appropriate, but we also feel we have an obligation to speak up when we see things that don’t sit right.

I’ve been bothered by the turnover at City Hall and the lack of civic engagement and vision in our community for years and I will continue to speak out about it.

As for development, I believe in smart growth and that we ought to do our best to keep the charm and not build ugly buildings all over town.

I don’t believe in sprawl—it creates traffic and is bad for the environment. I think density is necessary to create affordability and is also better for the environment.

I think downtown housing helps our local mom and pops survive and makes for a vibrant and safe atmosphere. I think design and uses are more important than a random density per acre number. I can show you ugly low density buildings and attractive high density projects. We spent a lot of time in the community process that led to our Downtown Master Plan explaining that density was desirable if projects were designed well.

I’m proud of my city. And I criticize it because I love it and I want to see it thrive and succeed.

I don’t see that happening if we lack vision, if city hall is a revolving door of staff and if those who remain are afraid to talk or are prevented from making recommendations.

I don’t think the commission should have taken over the CRA.

I think some developers absolutely stink—especially those who divide the community with controversial projects and then never build or those who seek variances and waivers that make no sense.

I also think we have had some really good developers in town. Entrepreneurs who have taken big risks and built very nice projects that have enhanced our city and created jobs, opportunities and activities that have made Delray—well— Delray.

Some developers have acted like strip miners extracting money from our city and not giving anything back.

Others have become among our most dedicated and generous citizens serving on non-profit boards, city advisory boards and donating to good causes. To label them all as greedy and corrupting is foolish and just plain wrong and guess what? It doesn’t change anything.

It doesn’t advance the narrative, bring us any further understanding or solve any of the issues and concerns people have about development.

But it’s not just the developers and city staff who take it on the chin in this town, it’s the elected officials and candidates who also have to deal with the vitriol.

I have respect for almost anyone willing to enter the arena. I make exceptions for the bullies, narcissists, and puppets—they can pound sand. I also don’t really like it when people want to start out as commissioners without having paid their civic dues. I think it’s important to know the city you seek to lead and for us to know you. If you haven’t volunteered there’s no way that’s possible.

But for those who wish to serve, it isn’t easy. I speak from experience.

You become a target and so does your family, your friends and often your business.

No wonder why it is so hard to find qualified candidates—those that have a deep knowledge of the city they hope to lead, a track record of involvement and accomplishment and a demonstrated ability to work well with others.

Maybe if we had a less toxic atmosphere we’d find ourselves with a plethora of talented people—they are here living in the village but unwilling to deal with the crap you have to deal with and really who can blame them except…..except we need them to engage and to serve.

So as we enter election season, I plan to look for candidates who can articulate a vision for our city, who recognize the importance and role of city staff (let them make recommendations for Pete’s sake, otherwise why have a professional staff?) and who exhibit some emotional intelligence that is required to be a successful leader at any level. Empathy is not optional folks.

I hope we find them. If we do, we ought to support and protect them. Sadly, they are going to need it.

 

 

 

 

#TroubleBrewing

Seems mighty tempting at times.

There’s a growing sentiment that tech companies are spiraling out of control these days.
There’s even a hashtag expressing the sentiment: #techlash.

Facebook is being questioned around the world for its role in sowing electoral discontent and losing control of  its user’s personal data. As a result, its stock has tumbled this week.
Twitter has been assailed for bullying and misogyny and Google and YouTube have had to answer questions about questionable search results and ads from less than savory groups populating it’s platforms.
It’s enough to make you want to live off the grid like my old commission teammate and dear friend Bob Costin.

At way over 6 feet tall we called Bob the “high commissioner” and often joked that he violated Delray’s strict height limits.
Bob was a wonderful commissioner with a terrific sense of humor but he and the Internet weren’t acquainted.

He didn’t have email, didn’t read documents online and if you wanted to talk to him you had to do it the old fashioned way: call him or visit his table at the old Green Owl.
He was there most mornings by 10 a.m.
Ahh..the good old days.
But my point is during my time in office 2000-07, if you wanted to vent you had to email, call or make an appointment.

Prior commissions—pre email—would eagerly await snail mail from their neighbors; so if you wanted to opine you had to write a letter, find an envelope, buy a stamp and look up an address before you could put your thoughts in front your mayor or commissioner.

Today, we have Facebook and other social media platforms where a robust debate rages 24-7 and city politics are a hot topic.

There’s no filter. No fact checkers. No obligation at all to be civil– short of threatening bodily harm which may get you booted—eventually.
It’s changed the game.

As  a result, lots of people don’t want to subject themselves to the abuse, bullying, misinformation and vitriol shelled out by a wide variety of charmers and so they don’t participate in local politics.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have rarely if ever visited most local Facebook pages devoted to Delray politics and recently opted out of one page I was a “member” of. I won’t judge those who indulge, I just don’t want to.

If the platforms featured intelligent debate, I might feel differently.

But what I saw during the recent election cycle was something less than intelligent or interesting.

What did I see?  Anger, division, polarization, innuendo, lies, attacks, hatred.
We should be better than this.
We need to be better than this.
Truth be told, I saw some kindness too. But the ratio of mean to nice is not even close.
And so I’m out.

I will continue to enjoy Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Linked In for other things such as sharing pictures of my dogs and birds, promoting local causes and businesses that I like, reading and sharing interesting articles and staying in touch with old friends, favorite teachers and distant relatives.

As for my old friend Bob Costin: he called me in the days leading up to the election blissfully unaware of the toxicity on the Internet.
He’s still not online. He still doesn’t have email.

And he still uses his favorite line when asked why: “my modem is down” before breaking into a laugh I’ve grown to love and cherish.
But despite Bob’s conscious decision to keep his modem on ice, he’s very much rooted in modern life. He’s up on the news (through newspapers), embraces change and is always fun and interesting to talk to.
He was a progressive commissioner back in the day, open to new ideas and had a few of his own as well.

He told me no candidate contacted him before the election. He wasn’t complaining just stating a fact.

But I thought to myself ‘what a shame’ because Bob has so much to share.
And it made me think that at least locally, we ought to make an effort to connect face to face.

We used to have town hall meetings, charettes, neighborhood dinners, community visioning sessions, citizen goal setting workshops and even roasts.
These are the things that build community.

This is why efforts such as WiseTribe, Creative Mornings, Old School Square, Chambers of Commerce, festivals, green markets and pet parades are so important.
It’s harder to demonize someone standing in front of you. It’s easy to do so online.

And if you can’t demonize someone you may find that there is common ground amidst the very real differences. Or at the very least, we may realize that those differences are heartfelt and honest –rooted in beliefs  sincerely held.

Social media has its place. But when it starts to erode community and humanity, count me out.
I think I will stick to pictures of my dogs sleeping and videos of my birds singing.
It feels a whole lot safer this way.

Time to Vote

Delray elections are Tuesday, March 14.

“Apathy is the most important political force in the United States. In the 2016 election, the most important in your and my lifetime, about half of Americans didn’t think it was worth voting.” Ian Bremmer, founder of a risk assessment group.

Tomorrow is Election Day in Delray Beach and Boca Raton.

Thank goodness.

In Delray, fewer people are likely to vote than in 1990 when Tom Lynch ran for Mayor against two opponents or in 2000 when David Schmidt was elected also in a three way race.

I sure hope I’m wrong because local elections are important and the people we elect matter.

Get it right and you have a chance for progress and community happiness.

Get it wrong and you can wipe out decades of success in a few months time.

Local government consultant Lyle Sumek  who worked in Delray and Boca used to call it municipal math: it can take 20 years to build something of significance and only a year or two to wipe it out. It might take a decade to get it back and that’s never a certainty.

So that’s why I’m supporting Jim Chard for Seat 2 and Shirley Johnson for Seat 4. I don’t want to go back. We’ve slipped far enough.

That’s the sentiment of most of the people that I know and they are the very ones who have worked so hard to help Delray over the years.

They are supporting Jim and Shirley too.

They are former mayors and commissioners, board members at key non-profits, business leaders, neighborhood leaders and those involved in our schools. Our police officers and firefighters also support Jim and Shirley.

This kind of support is important.

These are the people who get up every day and work or volunteer on behalf of Delray.

I trust their judgment.

They’ve built a pretty good little city and they are worried about the future. They should be.

Because Delray is at a crossroads.

We’re in trouble. And we need to strengthen the commission not hand more votes to those who have given us division, turnover and costly dysfunction. And make no mistake, dysfunction is expensive.

It costs us opportunities and investment and it costs us emotionally too as good contributors leave or invest their time elsewhere.

Jim Chard is a dedicated community volunteer with a distinguished resume and a skill set that we need. He’s thoughtful and he listens. That’s an important trait—because “leadership”  that keeps its own counsel and is cut off from those volunteering and investing in Delray is not really leadership at all. It’s an echo chamber and it leads to frustration and lost opportunity.

Jim’s been involved in many of the most important issues facing Delray as a member of Delray’s Drug Task Force and Congress Avenue Task Force. I chaired the Congress Avenue Task Force. Jim was an invaluable contributor, a hard worker and a fountain of ideas. I watched him build relationships with our large and diverse task force and build bridges that led to a great final report and solid, actionable recommendations.

As Vice Chair of our Site Plan Review and Appearance Board he is well versed in projects coming through the pipeline and has been a champion of walkability, sustainability and placemaking. If elected tomorrow, he will hit the ground running with a deep understanding of the issues.

He is also a level headed adult. And we need that now.

Shirley Johnson is also a warm and caring individual. She’s hard working and is embraced by the northwest and southwest alliance; neighborhoods that are critically important to our city.

She will provide needed maturity to the commission and will help bring civility and warmth to City Hall.

And for those who don’t think that’s important, I respectfully disagree. People perform best when they feel supported. A culture driven by fear or micromanagement might get short term results. But you’ll never soar unless you inspire, lead, motivate and support those doing the work. Right now, many contributors feel estranged, bullied, disrespected and ignored by their elected leaders. That’s an unsustainable arrangement and needs to change.

I believe that Jim and Shirley are equipped to support staff and lead our community. I believe they have the emotional intelligence to reconnect us.

We need them.

Because Delray has been been damaged.

Some say key parts are broken.

I never thought I would see a day where volunteers from neighborhood associations would feel estranged from their city commissioners.  I never thought I’d see a day where Old School Square would have to spend over a year to get a lease or where we would beat up corporate headquarters that we invited to our city or watch as we lose events that built downtown Delray and supported key non-profits. And the list goes on and on.

People react to the word broken–because it’s a harsh word and it sounds final.

But success is never final and failure is never permanent unless we allow it to be.

So let’s put the word aside for a moment and survey the landscape before tomorrow’s important election.

Let’s start at City Hall.

A friend posted on social media last week that over 300 city staffers (not including those who retired) have left in the past four years. It’s an astonishing number in a city our size with roughly 900 positions.

There has been tremendous turnover among senior staff with a dizzying array of managers, assistant managers, city attorneys, chiefs and department heads coming and going.

Some will say that’s Ok or call it growing pains. But it is not the sign of a healthy or stable culture. And when you lose institutional memory—and send messages that the past was terrible—you risk losing the good (and there was a ton of good). Value was created here. Good work was done. Period. Let’s take pride in our history and get to work on building a better future.

I’m hearing good things about interim city manager Neal DeJesus and Assistant City Manager Dale Sugerman but city staff can only succeed if leadership supports them, sets policy, holds them accountable and gets out of the way.

The greatest gift leaders can give their people is clarity but when your commission is split—as it has been –that’s impossible.

Debate is good. Division is not. There’s a difference.

Division does not allow for collaboration and it takes collaboration to move a city forward—which in my view means you are capable of working together to solve problems and to seize opportunities. It also means you are capable of moving on–even if, especially if–you don’t get your way.

When Delray was clicking it was because we had a diverse group of stakeholders from all parts of our city who were hard at work collaborating on building a Better Delray.

Yes. We were a Better Delray before there was a Better Boulder –and it was the leadership of this city who were invited to speak across the country on how to revitalize a city.

That was our brand. And it created enormous value. It’s why our homes in Lake Ida are worth 5 times more than 25 years ago or why developers were able to sell $500-$1mm townhomes on U.S. 1.

“Best Run Town in Florida” said Florida Trend magazine when Mayor Lynch presided civilly at meetings and was happy to make decisions which included building a tennis stadium downtown and challenging city staff to implement the Decade of Excellence –projects that put us on track and were adopted as a result of visioning done during Mayor Doak Campbell’s term.

And City Staff delivered.

 

Now we’re challenged to get a kitchen permit before styles change.

That’s not a shot at staff. Because I’ve been told by contractors that our building department is excellent. That is a shot at our politics and our “process” which our elected officials have labeled torturous but nobody seems to find the time to sit down and fix. Why not?

It also may be a symptom of culture. And elected leaders own culture.

 

The best leaders empower. They don’t micromanage.

The best leaders inspire and get out of the way.

The best leaders instill pride and spread praise.

It’s not happening.

If you read certain candidates literature (the barrage I wrote about) and take a look at social media you’d think Delray was war torn Beirut. It isn’t. We have our issues and challenges, but nothing that good leadership and community collaboration can’t solve or positively impact.

And so if we are not “broken”, then we are certainly exhausted and at risk.

At risk of losing our civic pride.

At risk of losing our brand.

At risk of losing the sense of community that is the true measure of a village. It’s not whether you have a building that’s 54 feet tall or 48 feet tall or gasp 60 feet tall. Most people—even architects– can’t tell the difference anyway.

It’s about how we debate issues and how we approach opportunities and problems. And it’s about how we disagree with each other because it’s easy to agree. The test comes when we don’t.

Do we rip each other to shreds on social media? Do we bully and intimidate? Do we demonize?

When citizens say “we’ve had enough and we’d like a Better Delray” do we embrace that aspiration or do we make snide remarks and buy up similar website URL’s in a snarky attempt to undermine a sincere effort?

When someone wants to invest in our community do we work with them or do we beat the tar out of them and their supporters?

Do we label them shills and challenge their integrity?

If someone wants to see jobs and downtown housing to support locally owned businesses and grow our tax base are we corrupt?

Yet we have Facebook phenoms—none of whom I’ve seen contribute much if anything—disparage the people who do.

Again, I’m far from perfect. I’ve labeled and I’ve gotten angry. But mostly I’ve held back. So have others I know.

I understand how change and growth can be scary and agree that there is a need to preserve our charm. There is also a need to create opportunities for young people and an economy that is deeper than food, beverage and recovery.

I honestly believe that most people want what’s best; but we just have different visions for what makes a sustainable city sustainable. I also believe there are some cranks who just want to sow division and create problems from the comfort of their couch. Ignore them. But embrace those willing to listen and compromise.

Leaders need to be willing to listen, evolve, include and reach out.  They need to be able to gather facts and make decisions. You can’t lead if your mind is closed.

But I don’t see a desire for compromise among certain people. I do see a desire to discredit and disparage others. Especially those who are hard at work in our city. And that’s dangerous. That’s a recipe for dysfunction, instability, bullying, destruction and incivility.

That’s how cities plummet. That’s how we give it all back. Remember municipal math…

That’s why I’m supporting Jim Chard for Seat 2 and Shirley Johnson for Seat 4 on Tuesday.

I think they are capable of listening. I think they are kind and able to compromise.

I think they are mature community servants and promising leaders.

I think they can be healers and we need healing.

I just pray that it’s possible.

Vote March 14. It’s important.

 

 

We Stand For What We Tolerate

politics

Politics on the national level has become a cesspool.

Not a locker room—a cesspool: defined as a foul and putrid place.

Mean, disrespectful, devoid of truth and full of anger, vitriol and hatred.

And once the invective is spread into the atmosphere and billions of dollars are spent, guess what? Not much happens.

Very few problems are solved.

Very few opportunities are seized.

And that, my friends is where the source of anger and frustration resides.

Washington long ago lost the plot. The whole concept of helping people and building a great nation has been overwhelmed by obstruction, intransigence and an inability to get anything done.

It has become a cycle of pathology and it’s boiling over and threatening the greatest nation in the history of the world.

You’d think with all the Ivy League degrees and privileged pedigrees that run around Washington that the political class might just figure things out.

The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump—all are reactions to problems left unaddressed and political dysfunction. People are angry and they have every right to be.

I no longer have small children, but I don’t think I would have let them watch the debate last week if I did.

This is not a slam on Trump or on Hillary—because their candidacies are merely symptoms. There would be no room for a brash maverick to come to our rescue if Congress was taking care of business. And if you think Hillary is a horrible human being–fine– but then shouldn’t we wonder why our best and our brightest aren’t attracted to politics anymore?

Why has politics become a dirty word? Why has compromise become a sign of weakness? Why is civility and respect no longer demanded or respected of people who seek the highest office in the land? Or any office for that matter?

Shouldn’t politics be a form of public service? After all, the definition of politics is: “the theory and practice of government, especially the activities associated with governing, with obtaining legislative or executive power, or with forming and running organizations connected with government.”

Therefore, a good politician is someone skilled in the practice of government; someone who can get results hopefully those that help our nation. We need more good politicians. The ones we have are lousy.

But we have demonized the word politician and yet we scratch our head when demons seek power.

Our politics have become so toxic that they actually cause stress and anxiety.

Time magazine and The Atlantic recently devoted entire pieces to the topic recently.

From The Atlantic:

Stephen Holland has practiced clinical psychology for more than a quarter century. He has done so in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades. He has never seen an election like this one.

“I’d say probably two-thirds to three-quarters of our patients are mentioning their feelings about the election in session,” he said.

So it is, perhaps, with every election. Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, said that therapist appointments anecdotally rise every election season. But 2016 seems to be something else entirely. “

Wouldn’t it be nice if elections were inspiring rather than dreadful?

This is the first election that my son, a recent college graduate, has focused on intensely. What he has seen scares him and he’s worried about his future as a result. My take: it may get so bad that we will have no choice but to fix Washington. But it seems we are still in the throes of a hissy fit and so solutions won’t happen until it gets so bad we won’t be able to stand it anymore.

Meanwhile, I think the best place to innovate and solve problems is at the local level.

So counties and cities that have their act together can make positive things happen in areas of importance to people: education, job creation, quality of place, public safety, transportation the environment etc.

This week, the Knight Foundation opened up its latest funding round called the “Knight Challenge for Cities” seeking to provide grants to cities that concentrate on the three areas the foundation sees as essential drivers for success: attracting and keeping talent, expanding economic opportunity, and creating a culture of civic engagement.

It’s an interesting list and one backed by studies done by the foundation and other researchers. But the nature of those drivers is distinctly local.

So there is great hope for cities—but that’s accompanied by a big ‘if.’

Local politics is not immune from the cesspool and toxicity. And on a local level– where you bump into combatants at Publix and downtown—it can get personal and nasty in a hurry.

I have been following local politics for 30 years. I remember when local campaigns got by on shoe string budgets and when volunteers filled envelopes with mail pieces that actually contained ideas and position statements.

I keep a pile of recent campaign mail on a credenza near my desk. I don’t look at it every day, but it’s there as a reminder for me and for visitors who sometimes drop by to talk local politics.

If you didn’t know anything about Delray and were just handed the pile you would think the city was war torn Beirut not a municipal success story that went from blighted to national recognition.

But in recent cycles big bucks have been spent trashing candidates and the city itself.

Years ago, every negative candidate who ran against the city and against progress, got whupped.

These days it’s a race to the bottom with voters (who are vanishing despite a growing population) forced to choose between negative candidates. Ugh.

And shame on the candidates for signing off on that crap.

But most of all, shame on us for tolerating it.

Want better candidates and better debates—demand it.

Hold elected officials accountable and support those who have ideas, experience and passion for the community. You may actually find a few if you create a culture that would encourage those types of people to run.

I hear from scores of people unhappy with the local political scene. They should be, because it’s sorely lacking.

But there are plenty of really good people around who would make fine elected officials; they just aren’t running because of the toxicity. The best and brightest don’t need it—they have other ways to spend their valuable time.

But when you get a gem, someone brave enough to enter the arena with ideas, compassion, vision, courage, kindness and strength make sure you support and protect them. Stand up to the negativity and the trolls and you might just see a better culture take shape and with it more quality candidates.

Sadly, we may not be able to fix Washington all that easily. But we can always fix the home front, but only if we choose to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Build A Great City

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.com

The adventure took me to Lake Worth last week.

Thanks to the wonderful Danika Dahl (www.I-Love-Delray-Beach.com) and my friend Greg Rice, I had the opportunity to bring some books and some thoughts to Lake Worth last week.

We had a great discussion about cities, downtowns, economic development and local politics with an emphasis on Lake Worth’s enormous potential. I began by emphasizing that they not me were the experts when it came to Lake Worth. While I have visited the city innumerable times and enjoy the downtown, its restaurants, festivals and beachfront casino and pier, I don’t live and breathe the community like people who live and work there do. But I do think there are some universal truths and principles for community building that can work anywhere if they are tailored to local sensibilities. But when it comes down to it, citizens are responsible for creating the identity, look and feel of their city. And each city should strive to have its own personality and style.

Below are the notes I took with me which framed the conversation. I thought I would share. It was a great night, with lots of intelligent discussion, some super ideas and a lot of inspiration. In an age of social media and technology it’s reassuring to see how powerful it is for people to gather and talk as neighbors with a shared passion for creating a great city. Thanks Danika and Greg for the opportunity. Local blogger Wes Blackman–a  really terrific urbanist himself– did a three part series on the evening that I am very appreciative of. You can find Wes’ blog at http://wesblackman.blogspot.com/.

Forge a Vision–

  • Involve as many stakeholders as possible.
  • Elected officials and property owners must be bought in
  • Begin to Implement immediately; prioritize and get going. If you fail to act, the vision fades and you lose the trust of those who volunteer and care.
  • Celebrate and market the small victories; build momentum because success breeds success.
  • City Budgets should reflect the citizens vision.
  • Stick to the vision: it takes time. Stare down the inevitable resistance and have patience and faith.
  • Remember that visions are living and breathing documents, principles should be stuck to, but good visions grow and are flexible to meet changing times.

Visioning tips:

Each city is different. Build on your strengths and assets. Inspiration can come from local history, local art, local architecture and design, but also embrace new ideas and changing times.

Be mindful of your strengths weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Guard against complacency. Don’t let failures or missteps bog you down, learn and move on. Similarly don’t let success make you smug or lazy.

When elections come, pin down candidates on their views of the adopted vision. Do they see themselves as being responsible to making it happen or are they running to upend the vision?

Require participants to put your city first, ahead of personal agendas, petty feuds and egos. Look for servant leaders and avoid those who think they are the smartest people in the room, regardless of the room they are in.

Remind people immediately when they stray…ignoring problems allows them to fester and grow. Insist that the citizen’s vision be honored. Be willing to fight for it—and count on having to do so.

 

Brand your street/downtown/city

What is your city’s style, what’s its promise, what’s its vibe? Once you identify your brand identity: market, promote and relentlessly work to bring people downtown.

Embrace change, but make sure change respects your city and its history. You can’t stop change, but you can shape it. The best visions and brands embrace the past, the present and the future.

Establish a culture of “how may I help you” versus “watch me stop you”. This does not mean compromising standards but it does mean being business friendly and making an effort to land deals and make things happen. Developers and investors don’t mind tough standards but they do require a fair, predictable and timely process.

A vision begins getting old the moment it’s adopted. Every day it lingers its damaged, every day you don’t talk about it people will fail to understand it. A vision is a flame. It needs to be tended to and you need to constantly educate the community of its importance and rationale. A vision is your best economic development tool, it’s what you sell.

Events are important. They bring people to your city. They allow for people to meet, talk and gather.

Public spaces and placemaking are critical. But they must be safe and active while also allowing for quiet enjoyment.

Culture is important too.–the arts are critical. Residents seek them out and so do visitors and companies.

Make sure elected officials are champions of the vision. They need to see themselves as stewards with a responsibility to make the vision a reality and to protect the vision.

If there is no vision or if the vision is shoved off to the sidelines personal agendas will take over, the vacuum will be filled with politics.

You need a team. The right people on the bus in the right seats. And those people need to be able to work together well. That doesn’t mean they will always agree but it means that they are able to overcome differences, trust each other and feel passionate about the vision and mission. Once a decision is made move on; there will be times you agree and times when you disagree.

Positioning is critical. Where does your city fit in the local and regional landscape? Delray did not want to become Boca—as successful as Boca is. Boynton should not be Delray. But city’s also have to know what is possible. Boynton is pursuing an identity as a city friendly to millennials—with workforce housing, breweries, an arts scene and inexpensive space for new companies. It’s a solid strategy/position because it counters Delray which has become expensive and a place where it is difficult to win approvals.

A good place to start

SWOT Analysis-

  • An old fashioned tool, but a good place to begin.
  • Strengths—What are the best things about Lake Worth?
  • My take: Outsiders view…
  1. A whole lot of amenities for a small city. A waterfront park, a real downtown, great history, two main streets, human scale, charming cottages, relatively affordable, a waterfront golf course, a beautiful ocean front casino, a great pier, some great restaurants, walkable. Engaged community, abundance of creatives. Central location in county, near airport and other cities. Diverse and tolerant.
  • Weaknesses

 

  • My take:
  • Crime, vagrancy, lack of residential density to support local businesses and restaurants, lack of industry, derelict properties, sense that Lake Worth has been on the brink for a long time but never quite gets there, vacancies downtown. Financial struggles, aging infrastructure.
  • Opportunities

 

  • My take:
  • Great wealth east of the bridge that could be attracted to shop and dine downtown, a great “old Florida, laid back unpretentious downtown” that has tremendous appeal, historic buildings ripe for adaptive re-use, add downtown housing and small office, co-working, incubation, emphasis on artists, ability to attract people to close-in neighborhoods through some bold program that would clean up and stabilize neighborhoods and grow tax base.
  • Threats

 

  • My Take
  • Politics that might resist change or risk taking, infrastructure issues.

All in all, a terrific night…next week my trip to Naples 5th Avenue and the power of collaboration.

 

 

 

Youth Shall Be Served

Mayor Grant

Mayor Grant

If you are a baseball fan—as I am—you can see the trend happening in that sport:  a move toward youth.

Winning teams are investing in young players and putting them out there with some amazing results.

They are also stocking up on young prospects, grooming them in the minors and investing big dollars in their farm systems.

Some teams—are mixing youth with more seasoned veterans. For example, the Mets talented young rotation features a lot of young arms but also features 42-year-old Bartolo Colon, a beloved veteran who is still pitching well (and hitting too, he slugged the first home run of his career recently and it took him a few days to round the bases). Colon can still get hitters out but he also brings intangible value as a mentor to the talented but inexperienced pitchers on the staff.

It made me wonder: maybe cities should be looking at that model as well.

That’s why I am fascinated with the most recent election in Boynton Beach. Voters there elected a 33-year-old mayor—who beat an 80 year old longtime incumbent and also elected a 32-year-old and 27-year-old to the commission.

It will be interesting to see where this youth movement leads—and if their brand of leadership is different than those who receive AARP Magazine every month.

I took a passing interest in the campaign and the message of the young candidates was simple: they stood for a more “modern” government, the expanded use of technology, an independent CRA (rather than a commission sitting as the CRA), fiscal discipline and a desire to make the city appealing and affordable to millennials. Voters went for it.

In a New Times piece after the election Mayor Steven Grant talked about positioning Boynton Beach as a city designed for 18-35 year olds mentioning how many in that age cohort were priced out of Boca and Delray. He also talked about the next two years as being critical for the city’s future—exhibiting a sense of urgency critical to success.

According to New Times, Grant’s newly elected teammates; 27-year-old Christine Romelus and 32-year-old Justin Katz envision Boynton as a livable, high density, affordable, working class community.

It will be fascinating to see whether they can pull off their vision or at the least move the city in that direction.

Newly elected officials have to ask themselves one question when they win their seat: is being a commissioner or a mayor a job to do or a job to have? It’s a simple question but how they answer and how they act determines whether they will be officials who matter or those who sit up on a dais for a few years putzing around playing small ball only to be termed out or beaten having accomplished little or nothing.

If you major in the minor and spend your term in office playing dodge ball you’ll be relegated to the dust bin of local history—not remembered fondly if at all.

But if you choose to make it count—and what an amazing privilege it is to serve– you have the opportunity of a lifetime to touch lives, transform neighborhoods and make a dent in your little corner of the universe.

Local government is the best of all forms of government—small enough to make change happen quickly and large enough to be fascinating.

I was 35 when I was elected in 2000—young compared to most of my colleagues in Palm Beach County at the time. I benefitted from sitting next to older commissioners who had life and business experience far beyond my scope at the time. And I think bringing the perspective of a young dad with kids in school to the dais helped them too.

A blend of new ideas and experience—and a willingness to listen to each other and to learn can make a huge difference.

I’m excited to see what that blend brings to Boynton Beach.

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.