Debate and Dysfunction


'We figure out the city or we fail'--David Simon creator of The Wire and Show Me a Hero.
We used to have some tough meetings. 
There were ugly incidents; episodes of incivility. 
There were nights when you came home and you couldn't sleep. Some nights you would leave a meeting and just drive hoping the night air would allow you to breathe again.
Local politics can be as ugly and as petty as national politics. In many ways it's even tougher because on a local level its personal. We know the people involved. We know where they live, have common friends, see them downtown, know their spouses. 
I know all five elected officials in Delray Beach; have known everyone who has served here since 1987. I've liked many, didn't care for a few.
When I first started writing about Delray Beach nearly 30 years ago, City Hall was a lion's den of intrigue. It was great to be a reporter back then, it wasn't so great to be a resident or a business owner.
Then Tom Lynch came along.
The tone of the meetings changed dramatically. Tom had help from people like Jay Alperin and David Randolph and later gentlemen like Ken Ellingsworth and Armand Mouw. There were some kind female elected leaders as well: Barbara Smith, Rita Ellis, Brenda Montague, Alberta McCarthy and Pat Archer come to mind. There were others.
We had 17 years of commission peace and strong leadership; it allowed progress to happen. 
Peace doesn't mean no skirmishes or that everyone loved each other. It also doesn't mean that were wasn't heated debate and passionate arguments. But it does mean that when the question is called and a vote is taken, you move on. You win some and lose some, but you try not to let bad feelings carry over to the next issue.
We've been off course for a while now. If you don't believe me, take a gander at the last meeting. Watch 20 minutes or so (if you can stomach it) of an issue relating to whether the city should accept a million dollars from the CRA for the old library site or fast forward to commission comments. Go ahead...we'll wait a few minutes.
For those who watched the meeting, it was a microcosm of what ails us as a community.
I saw mistrust and disdain among commissioners for each other and for key staff and agencies. I saw anger. I saw frustration and I saw dysfunction.
I don't watch meetings and haven't since leaving office in March 2007, but I was sitting on my couch watching a ballgame when I started getting texts from employees and others who were at the meeting.
"You gotta see this," one wrote.
"Hurry, tune in," wrote another. "It's like Jerry Springer."
So I did, I tuned in. And while the Springer references were an exaggeration, it was a poor display. If this was an aberration, I would chalk it up to a full moon. But this is a pattern and it shows a commission that's deeply divided. They can't even agree to cash a million dollar check without a split vote, a tongue lashing from the finance director (not a good move for an employee) and a full on attack on the City Attorney that was labeled an organized lynching by the mayor.
Most fun city? Indeed.
Every mayor and commission have their crosses to bear. We dealt with several hurricanes, a racially charged shooting of a 15 year-old child, a few hot development issues and a wildly controversial and deeply complicated move of Atlantic High School.
So far, at least in my view, this commission has had it easy. If you're biggest problem is whether to approve a downtown movie theater and a corporate headquarters, I'd say you were a damn lucky city.
But if I learned one thing about public life is that you never know what's coming down the pike.
It's a smart move to get your house in order, so that if something more serious than cashing a check comes before you, you'll be able to work together.
I'm sure this column will rub a few partisans the wrong way. That's OK. I'm not a partisan player...I've had favorites but Delray has always come first for me and for many others. So if my friends are screwing up, I don't think it's wise to ignore it. I don't think that's what a good friend does or a good citizen either. See no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil is no way to run a railroad.
I've been friends or friendly with all five elected officials sitting on that dais as temporary stewards...with the emphasis on temporary and especially on stewardship.
 It's hard to be productive when you can't get along or when there is no trust. You don't have to be buddies, but you do have to find a way to be productive because this city has serious issues.
I see a problem up there.
You will too, if you tune in or  listen to the chatter around town.
Tomorrow: iPic.

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