The Strategy, Part Four
July 15, 2010 11:56 AM
Fundamentally, process reform should be about a more responsive local democracy.
This entire week I've been writing about what I think should be our strategy for confronting the Great Recession. Yesterday I wrote about the need for process reform. Today I want to discuss where I hope process reform ends up from a more general philosophical standpoint.
This summer and fall we'll spend some time in city government examining our development review processes. Specific ideas are coming from business, labor, developers, neighborhood groups and others. They'll be vetted by the Economic Development Commission with specific proposals coming to the Council and me by, I hope, this fall.
For the most part, I'll let the EDC do its work before taking positions on specific proposals. If I think it's necessary, I'll make some proposals of my own.
But as a general rule, I'd like to see a system that is more democratic. By that I mean a system where it's clear who the decision-makers are and how they can be held accountable for the decisions they make. What that means in practice is that elected officials, the council and I, should be clearly responsible for making all major decisions. The buck needs to stop with us.
Moreover, when we make those decisions we should be acting as policy-makers, not as technocrats constricted to ferreting out officious details.
The Edgewater decision-making process is a case in point. I have taken some criticism for observing mid-way through the process that the Landmarks Commission, all but one of whose members is not an elected official, could have killed the Edgewater with a single vote. Some have said that referring to the commission as an unelected body was somehow offensive to them. It's odd that accusing a group of people of not being politicians was taken by so many as an affront. Most would take it as a compliment. I thought of it as a simple statement of fact.
I went on to say that this was evidence that our system was broken, and I stand by the use of that word. It is broken in this way: when an unelected commission or committee can kill an important project for the city based only on the narrow criteria of the single ordinance they oversee, that's a problem for democracy.
What the Edgewater experience revealed was a system that forced policy-makers to wear blinders and to consider only narrow aspects of a complex project. The Landmarks Commission considered the effect of the project on the historic district. The Urban Design Commission considered design issues. The Plan Commission needed to consider a handful of specific findings outlined in ordinance. And when the key vote on overriding Landmarks came to the Council, Alders had to consider the very specific question of whether undue hardship on the property owner outweighed effects on the historic district.
The result of all this is that policy makers like me could, if we wanted to, stand behind all those committees and all those detailed ordinances and pretend that the city is on automatic pilot, that we're not actually responsible for anything. Whatever the outcome, the process made us do it.
That's not good for our city. I want a system where at the end of the day the people you elected can vote up or down on major issues after carefully considering all the public policy implications. So, in the case of the Edgewater, the Council and I should have been able to ask ourselves this straightforward question: Weighing the jobs, the tax base, the restoration of an iconic property, the increased public access to the lake and the positive impact on our business climate against the size of the new hotel tower which some find too big for the district, do we support the Edgewater proposal?
Then we vote and the vote is there for all to see. And at the next election you get to decide if we did the right thing. That's transparent and accountable and democratic, and that's what our process should look like when we're done.