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Some good advice for Sean Paige

Tue, Nov 23, 2010

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We’ve all gotten good advice in our lives, whether from parents, peers, or wise elders.

Twenty years ago, as a rookie city council member, I got some from an experienced peer, Mary Lou Makepeace. After some hesitation, I took it – and it helped me make the slow transition from being noisy and ineffective to being a reasonably capable elected official.

When you’re first elected to office, you find it easy to believe that your calling in life is to change everything you don’t like, rail at your colleagues, stir up trouble for your political opponents, and introduce your city/county/state/nation to a glorious new dawn that only you, and few other exceptional individuals can foresee.

Then one day, Mary Lou took me aside and, in her plainspoken way, set me straight.

Opinions, she said gently, are like rear ends. Everyone has one, so don’t think that yours is anything special.

And, noting my tendency to get passionately involved in every issue that came before Council, she suggested that I back off.

“Being on Council is like one of those carnival games where you shoot rubber bullets at mechanical ducks,” she said. “There are a lot of ducks, but you only have a few shots – so you don’t shoot at every duck, just the ones you can hit. Otherwise, you run out of bullets, and you’re out of the game.”

Her point was clear. Choose the issues that are important to you and/or your district, do your homework, interact cooperatively with your peers and the community, make deals when you have to, and, remember, the ducks keep coming, and yelling at them makes no difference. Choose your targets.

Thanks to Mary Lou, I started paying attention to the way that veteran council members such as Bob Isaac, Leon Young, and Mary Lou wielded power.

They were invisible. They didn’t shoot off their mouths, they didn’t make inflammatory statements to the media, they didn’t seek publicity. But they understood their jobs, their city, and their colleagues.

Watching Sean “Mad Dog” Paige rampage wildly through the political terrain, one day trying to install a favored manager in the Hillside Community Center, the next railing over airport security procedures, and then contemptuously dismissing a Planning Commission decision, I thought of myself 20 years ago.

Sean, Sean, Sean – read Mary Lou’s advice, and, while you’re at it, here’s a little more.

>> Don’t make enemies unnecessarily. By dissing the planning commission, you just made a bunch of ‘em.

>> Take a media holiday – keep your mouth shut and your laptop turned off for a month. Figure out what you want to accomplish, not what you want to say.

>> As one of your constituents, I’m asking you to keep the damn streetlights turned off. I like seeing the stars at night in my neighborhood – don’t waste the money it’ll take to turn ‘em back on.

>> Do something about the traffic on 21st Street.

>> Get the cops to ticket the stop sign runners in my neighborhood – I almost got run over walking my dog.

>> You can’t do it alone, so stop fighting with your fellow council members and the administration. They won’t do you any favors if you make them look bad.

Those are the issues that I care about, and I’ll bet that the rest of your constituents have similar concerns. You’re a petty elected official, as I once was, with the ability to improve and enhance people’s daily lives in small ways. That’s your job.

So calm down, Mad Dog. Make nice, learn to play well with others, choose your ducks, and who knows, you might have a productive future.

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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Bill Guman Says:

    Amen, John. The valuable lessons we learn do last a lifetime. My favorite one was from Vice Mayor Leon Young, who once told me “If you don’t want to have to repeat yourself, then don’t say it the first time.” This was his response to one of my rookie gripes of always seeming to be “misquoted” by the media (my allegation, of course).

  2. Sean Paige Says:

    I’ve seen a lot of city council members accused of doing too little. I must be the first in history accused of doing too much. It’s a criticism I can live with.

    John Hazlehurst seems to want my service on council to be as unmemorable as his was, but given that I was appointed to a truncated term (18 months), and given that those who appointed me knew full well that I would shake things up, and given the number of important issues that are coming to a head in the city, I didn’t even consider the possibility of running out the clock.

    If I wasn’t having an impact, or gaining some measure of colleague support, I might agree with John’s grandfatherly advice. But on a number of issues, I think I’ve been able to get helpful and interesting things done. And I couldn’t have done this without the support (some grudging, to be sure) of colleagues, showing that I’m not the lone wolf John suggests.

    A majority of my colleagues supported city partnership efforts – an idea I first proposed during the budget crisis of last year. Community centers, pools and a number of other city amenities scheduled to be axed when I came aboard are open today as a result of those efforts. A majority on council also backed creation of the City Committee, at my urging. It’s been quietly providing City Council and other city leaders with some very enlightening briefings on the city’s big picture budget outlook, and I’m confident it will play a larger role going forward. Also at my urging, the interim city manager is in the process of creating an Optimization Committee, which will help the city explore outsourcing opportunities and other innovations. That, too, has buy-in from colleagues.

    A majority on council seems on the verge of approving some reasonable regulations for the medical marijuana industry, based on a comprehensive ordinance drafted by a task force I chaired along with Tom Gallagher. A majority backed my proposal to conduct the first-ever performance audits of the EDC and other recipients of public funds, putting some teeth behind the words “accountability” and “transparency.” A majority supported my proposal to explore passenger screening alternatives at Colorado Springs Airport. And I believe a majority doesn’t really give a hoot what the Planning Commission says about marijuana dispensary setback rules, even if they won’t say so, as I did.

    I’ve more quietly shaped or influenced a lot of other decisions made by this council in the year I’ve served, even if it’s gone unreported, unnoticed and unheralded in some circles. And I’ve tried to be responsive to more day-to-day constituent issues, whether it’s helping Westside merchants confronting the homeless situation or helping someone maneuver through city red tape. I normally don’t go around tooting my horn about any of this, but since my accomplishments on council have been called into question, I thought it was important to correct the record.

    Not all my initiatives or ideas are warmly embraced by colleagues, to be sure. Few had any interest in trimming back the just-approved 2011 budget, for instance, in an effort to not spend every dollar that’s coming in. Few (except Jan Martin) seem to have any real interest in improving the governance model of Colorado Springs Utilities, by creating a more professional and independent board (though that issue isn’t dead yet). And none except Tom Gallagher would join me in the dunk tank at the community center fundraiser.

    I’m not sure how this stacks up against Hazlehurst’s accomplishments. I asked around but no one remembers what those were. It’s a challenging time for Colorado Springs. A lot of issues are coming to a head. Given the vacuum of leadership and lack of creative thinking that exists at some levels, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. I never imagined I would stand accused of getting too involved.

    I’ve stepped on a few toes and bruised a few egos along the way – it’s hard to get anything done around here if you’re afraid to do that. But I think I’ve also gained supporters, judging from the positive feedback I receive every day. I’ve not done too badly for someone who was billed, coming in, as too “radical” to work with others or get anything acomplished. And I’ve still got five months before my term expires.

    I plan to finish strong.

  3. Janis Heuberger Says:

    Sound advice falling on deaf ears.