Should the city be run like a business?

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On Valentine’s Day, of all days, I went to the mayor’s press briefing.

Listening to the gripes of some journalists — do you really want the minute by minute calendar of the mayor? — I was struck by one participant who admonished the mayor that “the city is not a business.”

It’s obvious that the city isn’t a business in the same sense that a dog isn’t your friend: The city can run like a business just the way you can consider a dog “man’s best friend.” But the reporter must have had something more profound on her mind.

If by business we mean an organization whose sole purpose is to maximize profit, as classical texts used to define it, then of course a city isn’t a business: it makes no profit as a civic entity, and therefore its purpose isn’t to maximize said profits.

What if we changed profit maximization with profit optimization or even sustainability? This would be relevant for businesses but still insufficient as an answer to our question.

If by city we mean an organized group of people who self-legislate their social contract and agree on self-governance and the adoption of rules and regulations that include taxing authority, then of course this is not how businesses are structured or run.

Does it mean that cities are not meant to run efficiently like businesses? That’s silly, since efficiency is valued no matter the context.

You can be efficient washing your dog without sacrificing being careful and kind. This means, for example, not wasting water or making sure to dry your dog before leaving the bathtub (rather than after water-marks mess up the entire house).

So, if businesses are supposed to be efficient with their resources, both human and material, why would that be bad for running cities? After all, the city budget is made of taxes and fees collected from the community, and it stands to reason that the community would want the city not to be wasteful.

Perhaps the issue is human resources. Do businesses treat employees differently from city governments? I doubt anyone has empirical evidence to definitively answer this question. But in principle, businesses and cities similarly invest in training their employees and therefore treat them well (so as to have low turnover which is costly).

A sense of family-like relation evolves in businesses and city administration alike, especially when employees work together for long periods of time. Labor laws — state and federal — apply in both organizations, so it’s not about that either.

Is it a question of treating the public differently? Do city employees always treat members of the public who pay their salaries worse than business employees who are paid indirectly by their customers? I doubt this is the case, especially as city employees are trained to treat citizens as customers (who are always right, even when they are not), just as in the business world.

The more we think about it, the more we may realize that what we are talking about is organizations and their internal culture. The culture of an organization may arise organically, growing along the growth of the organization, responding to external and internal pressures, figuring out the core mission and values of that organization.

Sometimes organizations get distracted when financial or natural crises appear; sometimes changes come about for no apparent reason. And then there are changes that force a reorientation, like an election of a new leader (CEO or mayor).

Some may like Mayor Bach, some may not; some think he’s too tall, some that he’s not tall enough; some voted for him, some voted for other candidates. The fact is, the majority voted him into office — for one term only, as he promised.

Some may like the strong mayor concept, some may not; the majority voted for it, so the city charter was changed.

Given majority rule in a democracy, the strong mayor is a reality, and so is Mayor Bach. We can choose to either put every obstacle imaginable in his way, or let him try to accomplish what he said he would: run the city like a business, bringing his business experience to bear on the administration of this city.

Some top city administrators have quit or retired; some were invited to leave; some are under investigation; some deserve their pensions for years of service (a socialist concept that is fading under the harsh realities of hyper-capitalism).

If the Bach experiment has a prayer, it’s that he’ll choose wisely the best candidates to fill positions in his administration. We can either watch from the sidelines or help him succeed. His success or failure, after all, is ours.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS who supported Richard Skorman for mayor. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com Previous articles can be found at sassower.blogspot.com