We seem to be in the midst of one of our periodic funks — when we worry about our so-called leadership class.
“Alas and alack!” we complain. “We have no leadership!! Where are the great, visionary leaders who will lift us from the slough of despond to the shining heights of optimism — and how ’bout some jobs, auto sales and new housing starts??!!?”
Such expectations seem reasonable, given the present state of the mayor and City Council. The one is accused of ethical violations in the wake of the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters building debacle, and the other is not exactly a source of confidence and inspiration.
As Reggie Jackson said of Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner: “The one’s a liar, and the other’s convicted.”
Since we, the voters, choose our elected officials to lead us, we expect them to do just that. We expect — demand! — honest, effective, visionary, leadership.
We believe that the mayor ought to be a wise, able helmsmen, able to steer the ship of state (or maybe the rowboat of the city) through manifold perils and bring us all safely to port (or maybe the shores of Prospect Lake).
And whom do we trust? Not merciful providence, but a bunch of small-town politicians.
No wonder we’re so frequently disappointed.
We need to grow up. At best, city government is well-meaning and reasonably competent. At worst — well, have you been to Detroit lately, or even Marbella, Spain, where the last three mayors are all in jail for corruption?
The late Bob Isaac, who would have punched anyone in the snoot who dared to accuse him of being a “visionary leader,” was once kind enough to give me a primer in practical governance. At the time, I’d served on City Council for nearly a year, and couldn’t understand why my colleagues wouldn’t sign on to all of my visionary ideas.
“John,” said Mayor Bob, “if you want to get something done, and council has to pass an ordinance in two weeks, you can’t do it. It’s been under discussion for months, the (city) manager knows what he wants, most of council’s already made up their minds, so you’re just wasting your time. Now if you want to get something done next year, maybe nobody has a position, you can go out and persuade people, you won’t be stepping on people’s toes, you might be able to pull it off.
“But,” the mayor said, emphasizing the point, “if you want something to happen in three years, five years, no one cares. You can put it together, and make it happen. Just remember, though, we’re here to govern the city right now, so don’t waste all of your time trying to fix the future.”
I took Isaac’s advice, thanking him for his wisdom, and for mentoring me. It took me a decade to realize that he thought I was a pest, and figured out that, like a hyperactive child, I’d do well if absorbed by some harmless project.
Enthused, I threw myself into the nascent open space movement. At first, half a dozen of us met at my house to strategize. Outlandish as it seemed, we thought we could get our ultraconservative city to approve a dedicated tax to acquire open space.
Leaders emerged — Lee Milner, Richard Skorman, Independent Publisher John Weiss, Randy Case and dozens of others. Five years later, Colorado Springs voters comfortably approved the TOPS initiative, which has since dedicated the proceeds of a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax to trails, parks and open space.
Thanks to TOPS, thousands of acres have been preserved for future generations.
That did not come about because of “visionary” leadership. It came about because open space was an issue that hundreds of people already cared about, and were willing to work for. Those people came together, enlisted more supporters, and moved forward.
In common with successful, resident-led movements, TOPS never had a single, charismatic leader. There was no person who was, or who sought to be, “The Leader.” Its strength, and ultimate success, came because it was, and still is, deeply rooted in the community.
Mayor Bob resigned a few months before the voters approved TOPS during April of 1997. He’d voted against it.
“It’s not good for the enviros to get their own tax,” Bob told me, “You and Mary Lou both pushed for it, and now she’s mayor, and she’ll have to deal with it. Pretty soon everyone will want their own tax, just like Denver, and there won’t be any money to run the city.”
Contrast TOPS with the city-led project to retain the USOC.
Unlike TOPS, which was transparent, bottom-up and depended upon voter approval to be enacted, the USOC deal has been secretive, top-down and funded by the city without voter approval.
TOPS succeeded because of ordinary people who were willing to work hard for a cause that they loved, while the USOC deal was conceived, created and nurtured by the city’s established leadership.
Mayor Bob understood such leadership. As he once said:
“The people just want you to be sincere and honest. That’s all you really need to succeed in politics — so once you can fake that, you’re OK!”
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.