Running the city like a business is odd

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Not only did the citizens of Colorado Springs want a “strong mayor” with commensurate strong salary, they wanted the city to run like a business, which is code-word for efficiency. They found a perfect match in Steve Bach, a former commercial real-estate broker whose regal appearance bespeaks of a successful CEO and hopefully a mayor. Beware of what you ask for!

So, Mayor Bach is running the city the way he ran his private business — all communication with the media, for example, is streamlined and must be approved by his office. It’s one thing to tell your secretary that all inquiries about a particular building should be answered only by agent X, and quite another to tell city officials/managers that they cannot answer directly questions by journalists (and a freelance “rogue” — as I have been affectionately labeled). Really? Last I recall, he and his fellow-council members ran on platforms of transparency and accountability, so why tight controls?

As I was looking through the police department annual budget of around $92 million, I reached out to its Chief, the affable and eloquent Richard Myers, only to find out that only if city manager Steve Cox, also an affable and friendly former Fire Chief, is present, he could meet with me. Really? Let’s waste two officials’ time. Is this how efficient businesses are run? To save money and time, I rescinded my request to meet. The reports can speak for themselves.

So far two myths are being examined: first, public entities (like a city), if run like a business, will necessarily be more efficient, and second, that transparency can be simply declared to make it so.

When I reviewed Memorial’s budget for public benefit — limited, of course, to the public that reads the CSBJ — and suggested that there was no hurry to conclude an agreement in principle between the city and Memorial, a council member chided me for being “uninformed” because all the documentation is on the city’s website. Were salary increases for 25 percent of city employees during the official wage freeze (as discovered only recently by a new council member) also on the website? So, transparency can be accomplished by referencing a website! This is probably a third myth.

It is true that websites in general are open to the public in the sense that anyone with a personal computer or library card can have access to them. But is the mere fact that a website is part of the wide world of the Internet in itself a sufficient condition for public access? No, it is a necessary, but not sufficient condition. Without the website no public access is possible, but with it there is no guarantee that the public will know about it, find it, navigate the data in it that is in question, and be able to analyze its nuances.

For example, having poured over some 200 pages of police department reports (courtesy of Chief Myers who provided the links), I was thoroughly impressed by the detail of the reports and their commentaries, especially as the city has grown and the budget has shrunk. As in most budget reports, we get large numbers and not the details from which these numbers are composed. This makes sense, because otherwise I’d have to read probably more than 2,000 pages, which is too much for an average citizen (or even for a rogue who is on summer break from university duties). Here and there one wonders if “each Emergency Technician answers nearly 5,700 9-1-1 calls a year” is impressive workload or not. Assuming that person works 250 days a year, this means 22.8 calls a day… Should I have wasted the Chief’s and City Manager’s time to find out if this is what their businessman-boss finds efficient use of resources?

In another report Chief Myers speaks my language: “Enforcement activity for the sole purpose of generating revenue is contrary to the social contract, and outside the ethics of modern policing.” Right on! Social Contract theory goes back to Socrates and his trial in Athens in 399 BCE, and espoused by most political philosophers who recognize that citizens have in fact an implicit “contract” with their representative government to ensure that they receive more benefits from the state while relinquishing some of their rights. Chief Myers knows this, acknowledging the consent of the citizens to be taxed and policed, get traffic tickets, be monitored by cameras. He wants to dispel the impression that ticketing motorists is the only way the department pays its officers (which is true in Colorado’s mountain towns where around 70 percent of the budget is generated this way). I wish he did more with the “three Es” of “enforcement, engineering, and education,” to emphasize education above all. Are all officers and civilians in the department proud to be “civil servants” constrained by a social contract or are any of them on a power trip? I hereby volunteer free lectures to the department on social contract or any other related topic.

As for enforcement, I have three suggestions: first, given that we are the healthiest city in the country, why not have officers ride bikes rather than cruise-cars or motorcycles? It’s cheaper, more flexible, ever-present (they go slower), and healthy for the officers. This would be like the British Bobby who walks around the pubs with only a club in hand.

Second, if there are dangerous intersections, cruisers should have their lights on (rather than hide behind bushes), so that motorists are warned; likewise on highways and around schools — let the public see where you are! Incidentally, this is true in Israel and France where cruisers have their lights on at all times for easy recognition, immediate warning, and a measure of safety. Washington, D.C., is considering adopting this method of patrolling.

And third, some ideas cost no money to implement: several years ago I suggested that cruisers leaving from or returning to the Nevada station should take different routes (rather than just use Cimarron and Nevada) and thereby cover more terrain — it has been done to the effect that the mixed-neighborhood around the station is safer than when I moved there in 1996.

Running a city like a business is an odd proposition: profit maximization isn’t the goal, but rather public service; tight communication controls don’t bespeak of public access. Transparency is a tough goal to achieve — open forums and websites help, but they must be critically navigated by experts or interested groups (and not the public at large). The media can help, as long as its work is done with grace and respect, humor and goodwill. And finally, officers, please don’t hunt me down and ticket me; despite the rogue label, I pay my taxes on time and stop at red lights.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He regularly teaches a course on “politics and the law.” He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com