Reform requires care, thought

Filed under: Opinion |

Organizations, be they businesses, nonprofits, or governments, must change and evolve to remain viable.  But change doesn’t always bring progress.

In the 138 years of its existence, the city government of Colorado Springs has had to continually change, reform and refocus.

Today’s sprawling, argumentative city of nearly 400,000 souls requires city government of a breadth and complexity that might have dismayed Gen. Palmer, who sought only to create a genteel little village at the foot of Pikes Peak.

As we begin yet another round of efforts to reform and re-imagine the structure and functions of municipal government, it’s important to distinguish between reform and change.

Reform improves an organization, while change may fail to deal with existing problems, or make things worse.

Three separate efforts are currently under way, all aiming at radical change.

By undertaking an exhaustive analysis of city finances and procedures, the group headed by Steve Bartolin and Chuck Fowler hopes to find ways to cut city labor and procurement costs.

At the same time, longtime Colorado Springs developer David Jenkins has launched an effort to bring a measure to next November’s ballot to change the city’s council-manager form of government to a strong mayor system.

Finally, a council-appointed commission has begun to consider whether the city should sell or otherwise divest itself of Memorial Health Systems.

Far from being systematic, coordinated efforts at thoughtful reform, these three efforts are ad hoc responses to the city’s ongoing economic difficulties.

While we neither endorse nor oppose any of the three, we believe that they should move forward carefully and deliberately, and be both transparent and accountable.

As both private groups are using city staff to retrieve and prepare data, it’s reasonable to ask how much staff time has been used, and at what cost to taxpayers.  Will the meetings of these groups be open to the public?  And, given the extraordinarily voluminous records of the city’s operations that are publicly available, precisely what non-public information do they seek?

And we need to be aware that changing the form of government would be no small thing.

In a typical strong mayor structure, the mayor hires and fires all senior officials, creates the city budget and has sole executive power.  City council is a separate legislative body, headed by a council president. The mayor may veto any ordinance, and a council supermajority is required to override.

Such a system might be better suited to our city than the present council-manager form, but its sudden introduction might create as many problems as it solves.

For example, a mayor who is also the city’s CEO is fine — if the voters choose the right candidate.  That’s important, because we’ll be stuck with him/her for four years.

And radically reducing city labor costs, as Steve Bartolin’s original letter to Mayor Lionel Rivera seemed to suggest, might please taxpayers, but would a less well-compensated workforce be in the city’s long-term interest?

Finally, would severing the city’s relationship with Memorial have unintended and unanticipated consequences?  Would Memorial provide the same level of care if transferred to private ownership?

The British politician Lucious Cary, addressing the House of Commons 370 years ago, said, “When it is not necessary to change, then it is necessary not to change.”

Our eager reformers would do well to heed Cary’s advice.