What Kind of City Do We Aspire To Be?
Three Essays - 04/08/09
These essays were originally published in May and June, 2008.
Several events may have undermined the trust of citizens in city government. Two of our former public officials are facing charges of public corruption. Deerfield Beach is chided in the press as one of the most corrupt places in South Florida. These essays, therefore, pertain to the integrity of our public entities, not to the level or quality of the services provided by city government.
None of these writings translates immediately into a legislative program, cause, or strategy for political action. They were intended to provoke discussion -- they are a "Preface to Thinking" about Deerfield Beach and the future and relevance of politics to making our city better than it has been in its civic affairs.
First Essay - Premises - 05/19/08
This is a question that is not often asked or considered in our civic discussions or debates: what do we really want our city and our community to be like? Do we want it to be a safe, healthy, livable city where we and future generations want to live and can afford to live? What are the aspirations of our civic leaders and public officials who guide so much of the life of the city? What principles shape such a community; and, importantly, what do we need to do in order to achieve and sustain such a place?
The city has through the years conducted meetings and charettes to seek public input as to what the beach area or the Cove Shopping Center should be like; many more decisions were made without direct involvement of the citizens. But these were specific discussions about physical places, not the broader picture of how such projects influence the overall community in the decades to come. We have never had a meeting or conference to address the broad, abstract subject suggested by the title to this essay.
It is not certain that if we were to have such a meeting that a clear answer would be gotten. It is not certain that a consensus would be achieved, and that out of the myriad self and special interests a common picture of what Deerfield Beach should be like would emerge.
The community is made up of concentric classes of people, and a diverse people: in some respects, Deerfield Beach is a capsule version of the whole world. The broadest class of residents care very little of civic affairs. They don't go to meetings, unless it is an issue that affects their own interests directly; they don't register to vote; if they do register, they rarely, if ever, vote in local elections. Most people don't vote for mayor or city commissioner.
There are the voters. Then there is the core group: we sometimes refer to it as the political class, and it is this self-constructed "Úlite" that makes the real decisions that influence questions like this. They are the activists, the media in its various forms, the top administrators of the city, the elected officials, and the business and community leaders. The thing is, we rarely ask our leaders this question.
The charter directs the city government, and states that we should have honorable government. That implies many things. Over the past several years, the city budgets have been set to achieve a "dynamic city." The vision, according to the most recent budget statement, is "To be the most dynamic South Florida Coastal Community in which to live, work and play."
What is a dynamic city, actually? The budget outlines a set of high-sounding goals and values, including, "Ethical Behavior and Integrity" as one of the values. But what is the actuality, and the historical reality, of the dynamic city that we aspire to be?
To understand the reality of the dynamic city, one needs to look around, to see what is, what was, what has improved, and how we've regressed as a community. And we need to ask:
1. Is a dynamic city one which respects the people; and one in which citizens treat each other with respect and civility? Does city government work for the general interests, or special interests?
2. Is "Ethical Behavior and Integrity" an operating value in the conduct of civic affairs in the city, in reality?
3. Are residents and visitors safe? Do they feel safe and secure in their homes and on the street?
4. Does the justice system work? Does it protect the rights of citizens?
5. Is there peace among the diverse groups that make up the community?
6. Does public policy respect the environment and make right and appropriate use of our resources?
7. Do the people really count in the business of the city?
These queries direct us to some of the principles that could help achieve the kind of community we aspire to be, provided that this is the place as we have described it earlier in the discussion: civility, integrity, safety, justice, peace among ourselves, concern for the environment, and public involvement -- these are the principles which are suggested by these queries.
All seven of these principles, if put into practice, could lead to what the people have already willed: honorable government. They could lead to a better community and city, one worthy of our aspirations: one in which we live together, instead of at each other's throats.
It has been the oft-repeated statement of this web site that the people of Deerfield Beach can have better than we've had over the past 20 years or so.
It's likely to start with the right people in office. Maybe someone in a position to do so would like to take the lead.
Second Essay - Queries - 05/27/08
What kind of city do We the People of Deerfield Beach, Florida, aspire to be? Or does the question itself wrongly presume that enough of us actually care to make the question relevant? One of the characteristics of local politics in the last five or six election cycles is that people, even the voters, seemed to be torn over what is the right course for the city.
During the late '90's and into the new century, city government pursued an aggressive land-use policy which was intended, mainly, to redevelop and commercialize the prized beach area of Deerfield Beach. Every coastal city claims theirs is the best, but the beach here, in the minds of many, stood alone. Quiet, safe for kids and families, clean, and relatively free of strip-type commercialism; it was no wonder it attracted developers.
The official justification for a proactive redevelopment policy for the beach area was to eliminate "blight" and to widen the tax-base of the city. The "blight" of course was the older, smaller motels and apartments where people of more modest means could stay for a week, or over the winter, or even year round, near the beach. They didn't bring big bucks into the city.
This was essentially the vision of the city at that time -- to displace these "beach people," and voters bought into this to the extent that they continued to return the public officials who promoted beach redevelopment to office. On the other hand, local activists were able to mobilize citizens against plans to turn publicly owned properties over to private developers; residents seemed to support the abstract idea of improving the beach, but were wary of proposals such as Ocean Park, that would radically alter the beach area, possibly to the detriment of all residents, and be irreversible.
Looking back, the legitimate question is what was the actual outcome of this scheme so grandly presented. The darker view is failed businesses, empty retail fronts, incomplete projects, even more crowded streets, and an invasion of people who seem, somehow, not exactly to belong here. The newest business in the beach business district, situated between a closed coffee house and an out-of-business smoothie place, a tattoo parlor, is symbolic of what redevelopment brought to Deerfield Beach.
Is this the place where we chose to live and is this where people in the future will want to live? Who will be able to afford to live in Deerfield Beach 10 or 20 years from now?
The failure of the redevelopment era is that it disregarded the future further out than the time when the beach was built out; and it failed to pay attention to citizens who warned policy-makers about this outcome.
But the failures of that era went beyond a new blight at the beach. City government closed up to the public. Officials routinely lied; they did not tell the truth about Ocean Park or the Boinis proposal, or the social costs of development. Citizens who questioned public officials were treated disrespectfully and slandered in some cases; civil rights were violated in other cases. One area of the city is a virtual war zone. Politics is long on complaints and accusations; short on ideas. Intimidation has supplanted reasoned discourse. Practically everybody is under some sort of official investigation, but nobody leads.
How do we then go beyond the failures of the recent era and find a new direction? We can set out abstract principles and goals, as suggested in the First Essay; it's quite a different matter to put these into practice. An important part of this process is self-examination and reflection. We must ask difficult questions which may invite uncomfortable answers. If one of the principles which is to shape and sustain the kind of city we aspire to be is integrity, then we must begin by asking ourselves, individually and as a community:
1. Do we speak the truth even when it's difficult to do so? It's easy for media, officials and candidates for public office to lie; to promise what cannot be achieved; to forget. Withholding or "burying" information is not truthfulness.
2. Do we confront lapses in integrity in ourselves and others? Nobody is perfect.
3. Do we consider all sides of an issue? One can do this without compromising his own ethical or intellectual standards. But nobody has all the answers.
4. Do the right people get the credit for good ideas and achievements?
5. Do we fairly evaluate our public officials and civil servants? Or do we just play the blame game?
Then, we might also ask:
6. Is race, color, or nationality a factor in public policy or other community decisions? Don't be too quick to answer this one.
7. Do we as individuals or a community accept and spread mean-spirited rumor and innuendo? Does the media that reports on local civic affairs do so competently and without prejudice?
8. Are we respectful of other's opinions? Do we shut some people out of the discussion?
9. Do we try to build a community which is good for all the residents? Or do special or private interests dominate?
And a related question:
10. Do we try to involve as many people as possible in civic affairs?
The purpose of these questions is not to achieve unrealistic goals; no community can expect to be a perfect place with perfect people. However, a careful and honest analysis, especially of the politics of the city, could move us closer to the kind of place we want to live in and the kind of city we want to pass on to future generations.
There are, obviously, many other questions to be answered as well, and additional discussions to be had on how to put the principles into practice that will help us achieve a better community.
Third Essay - Values - 06/22/08
Let us say for the purpose of discussion that there is agreement among the people that Deerfield Beach can be a better place for us and for generations to come: where people are generally respected, where public officials are held to certain standards of right conduct, where residents feel safe, where neighbors are at peace, where citizens matter in important decisions. In such a place, principles such as civility, ethics, and citizenship are important and relevant.
Yet, this may not be the way that everybody sees Deerfield Beach. They may see a city run by and for the benefit of insiders, where most people don't care about civic affairs as long as their trash is collected and their toilets flush. Progress is defined by the mass and number of new constructions, not by the quality of life in the city. Citizens are often irrelevant anyway. What, then, is the relevance of any principle, when there is simply no interest either by the citizens or the leaders?
In the First Essay, we asked a series of questions about our community: Does city government work mostly for special interests? Is ethics a civic value in our city? Do people feel safe in this community? Are civil rights protected? We are a diverse community: Is there peace among the diverse groups? Does public policy respect the environment and make good use of our resources? Do the people really matter in the civic business, or just the "friends" of those in power?
In the Second Essay ("Queries") we asked this further question: Do we confront lapses in integrity in ourselves and others? The chances are, the answer is no, not all the time. Note that the question is not just about them who act unethically. It's also about how we deal with public dishonesty. Do we shrug it off and say "Well all politicians are dishonest"?
In the physical world, nature tends to follow the hidden flaws and fault lines. Human action -- politics in particular -- also tends to follow the hypocrisies and vagaries of our value system. Do we hold public officials accountable for their actions? Not only public officials, but civic and business leaders? What about the media? Are the only concerns in Deerfield Beach speed bumps and water rates? Why is there so little interest in just basic civic values?
Every community has civic values. The common thief has certain values. It's a matter of what the values are. A value system cannot be legislated, dictated, mandated, imposed; people can be coerced or frightened into patterns of behavior, but values are beliefs, not responses to practical dilemmas. So civic values are transactional, that is, a matter of agreement as a kind of social contract.
However, just because there is such a social contract does not mean that the public business is conducted in accordance. The people we elect to office and people our elected officials appoint to carry out that business may disregard the public sentiments. This is when citizens can withdraw or become more assertive. As the 20th century American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote, "It is not actual suffering but a taste of better things which excites people to revolt."
As the city elections approach and people begin to scramble to fill the public offices, perhaps we as citizens and voters should ask the candidates "What Kind of City Do We Aspire To Be?" The answers could be most enlightening.
The website of Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, provided the general outline for these essays