Forget buzzwords, we need leadership

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

Leaders, leaders, leaders — they’re coming out of our ears, or at least out of our mailboxes.
Last week, as voters received their mail-in ballots for the upcoming City Council elections, most of us were the victims of a spring blizzard — no snow, just a deluge of political brag sheets.
Middle aged or old (there are no “young” candidates), rich or comfortably well-off, (no poor candidates either), male or female (just one of the latter), dumb or dumberer (just a gratuitous insult — don’t take it personally, candidates), they all share a common characteristic: They’re all leaders!
Larry Small is a “visionary leader.”
Tom Gallagher “asks the hard questions.”
Bernie Herpin “will continue to provide leadership.”
Tom Harold “has demonstrated remarkable leadership.”
Randy Purvis brings “proven leadership.”
Jan Martin brings “new leadership.”
Greg Timm will “take a strong leadership role.”
That’s fine, I guess — it’s nice to know that all these candidates have nicely inflated egos. And you can bet that political consultants across our great nation have settled on “leadership” as a positive buzzword, a content-less assertion that pleases voters.
After all, it’s pretty obvious that any candidate for City Council who characterized him/herself as a “follower” or a “compromiser” wouldn’t attract many votes.
But that’s what a council member does — follows, compromises and goes home.
Consider the reality of the office.
Several times a month, council members file into chambers, take their seats and consider the meeting agenda. They neither prepare nor approve the agendas — that’s the job of the city manager. Assisted by his staff, and his department heads, the manager figures out what items need to be on the agenda.
The agenda is driven by the City Charter and by municipal ordinances, which define and determine whether council needs to vote on any particular matter.
So council members sit obediently in their (hopefully comfortable) chairs and vote yea or nay. Most of the time, they simply follow staff recommendations.
Typically, land use items and/or tax issues attract the most attention. On those rare occasions when city staff hasn’t been able to forge compromises with developers and neighborhood advocates, council might have to listen to hours of impassioned arguments for and against a development proposal.
If they’re good at their job, they’ll help forge a compromise (dirty word) among the warring parties, while essentially following (dirty word) staff recommendations.
So where does the leadership come in? That’s why we have a mayor.
Strong, persuasive leaders like Bob Isaac and Mary Lou Makepeace have actually led the city by the force of their intellect and experience. They created enduring, supportive majorities on the councils they led and worked collaboratively with the city manager and utilities director to put their policies in effect.
To do so, they needed followers. Not yes-men and yes-women, but smart folks who signed on to council’s shared goals, helped sell those goals to city residents and weren’t afraid of spirited debate.
But what happens when a mayor and the council members simply stop paying attention and sign on to the path of least resistance, whatever that may be? What happens when council, whose primary function is to make policy decisions, never critically examines longstanding policies? What happens, in short, when a mayor doesn’t lead and council takes following to extremes?
Nothing good.
And when both the Gazette and the Independent editorially characterize our present council as driven by “groupthink,” well … Houston, we have a problem.
Take water, for example.
The city has adopted what is, for lack of a better word, a scorched earth policy in dealing with those folks in Pueblo who oppose the Southern Delivery System.
The city and Colorado Springs Utilities have fought them in court, accused them of bad faith, condescendingly belittled their objections, disseminated misleading information about SDS and have made multiple personal attacks on the publisher of the Pueblo Chieftain.
The result?
SDS is, if anything, farther from approval than it was four years ago, when the mayor and three of the four incumbents took office. City policy has succeeded only in deepening and widening opposition within the Pueblo community as well as in the lower Arkansas Valley.
The future of this community is intimately linked to the construction of the Southern Delivery System. Without it, we’re toast — we’ll become a stagnant, permanently water-short city, unable to respond to market-driven growth. We’ll be forced to recycle our own sewer water into the drinking water system or invest billions in massive well fields that might be exhausted within a few decades.
We can’t afford to fail.
But despite this, the city is once again walking down the primrose path.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the city managed to bungle the Homestake II project, as well as the plan to dam the Arkansas at Elephant Rock. In each case, local communities and community activists formed ad hoc coalitions to oppose what they saw as high-handed, insensitive, my-way-or-the-highway water grabs by the Springs.
In each case, the city made cosmetic changes to the projects, but refused further compromise. The city took Homestake II all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. City officials were shocked — shocked! — that they lost.
Sound familiar?
We might be looking at a repeat, because of the city’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge either the changing political landscape or the legitimate concerns of our southern neighbors. We need to change in a hurry and that requires leadership — something which, brag sheets notwithstanding, is in pretty short supply down at City Hall.
In fact, we could characterize the St. Patrick’s Day parade dustup, wherein the police, at the behest of parade organizers, forcibly removed a handful of protesters, even dragging an elderly woman across the street, as a reflection of the absence of leadership.
Why were city police acting as John O’Donnell’s private security guards? The Peace & Justice folks had a parade permit — so what if O’Donnell got cold feet and wanted to stop them from marching?
And if they’d marched, and offended some spectators, so what? What happened was immeasurably worse — offensive in itself, and yet another national black eye for Colorado Springs.
And if anybody thinks that such incidents aren’t at least partially a product of inattentive, laissez-faire, seat-warming, go-along to get-along governance, please raise your hands … the council vote is 8-1 against such an idiotic suggestion, with only Mr. Gallagher in opposition.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.