Escaping the bonds of politics

Time was, all government bodies operated the way Marion does, with elected officials doing more than mainly rubberstamping the recommendations of paid professional staff. Nowadays, in most school districts and many cities, such as Hillsboro, elected officials heavily rely on the expertise of superintendents and city managers whose trustworthiness and understanding of complex issues has been proved by previous experience, in which they handled similar jobs for similar out-of-town entities.

What makes Marion unusual is that its professional staff — however dedicated and hard-working the individuals holding those positions might be — has no track record beyond what it has done locally. And some of those experiences have not been positive. The more the staff, with good intentions, tries to act like outside professionals and administratively resolve issues before they reach elected officials, the less trust the staff engenders with those officials and the people who elect them.

It’s not that Marion’s governmental structure unusually has its mayor possessing both executive and legislative power. It’s that Marion has hired staff reflective of that system while some on the council believe that it has another system, in which bureaucrats work everything out behind closed doors and elected officials then smile and make only positive comments.

True democracy is a messy form of government — something the “always positive” faction seems to forget. The more that bureaucrats try to cover up problems and resolve differences outside of public view, the more the public distrusts them.

Simple things contribute to the problem. Printing only brief summaries of new ordinances rather than the full text and supplying reams of private information to elected officials before votes are taken makes the public wonder what’s being put over on them. So does conducting executive sessions at frequencies greater than what are accorded for bathroom breaks. We’re still puzzled in this case why the city attorney was vacationing and unable to appear at either council meeting to help councilmen understand the ordinance involved but was available to certify that the cost-saving summary of that ordinance met all statutory requirements.

The “always positive” concept of keeping democracy hidden from the people means that, for many ideas, including some quite meritorious ones, bureaucrats and officials get so far out in front of the people they are trying to lead that leadership becomes impossible. This in turn merely encourages conspiracy theorists to step in and create chaos.

The question of how to design and where to locate restrooms in Central Park is a prime example of how being too organized in advance, outside of public view, can condemn an otherwise meritorious project.

Leadership doesn’t mean dragging people into things for their own good. It means publicly listening to them and publicly getting them on board before the train tries to leave the station. Do that with housing proposals or restroom plans and the public will eventually do the right thing. Try to resolve everything in an “always positive” manner and all you will do is create unproductive buzzing in coffee klatches and distrust for times when difficult leadership really is needed.

— ERIC MEYER

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