Sep 5, 2008

Cities And Squeaky Wheels

I was talking to a city councilor from another East Multnomah County city the other day, and we discovered we both had a pet peeve. I'm not sure many people will appreciate this pet peeve, and I don't mean to offend any of our local citizens who have ever come to a city council meeting with a concern or problem they wish to solve. But the pet peeve is this: The strange dance that occurs when a local citizen, or a handful of local citizens, come before a city council with a problem, expecting an immediate solution, and the resulting and predictable clumsy attempt by the city council to appease the citizens sitting in front of them by ignoring local ordinances, costs involved or the unintended consequences of rash decision-making.

I don't judge anyone who asserts their self-interest when they come to our city council meetings and ask for a solution to their situation. If I were in their shoes I'd do exactly the same thing.That's one of the reasons why we're there- to listen to our citizens and help them out if we can. We're there to put ourselves in their shoes and do our best to see things from their point of view.

But of course it's not that simple. Usually, when a citizen asks for a special exception to a city ordinance or procedure, or asks the city to take any sort of action that would benefit that citizen, the proposed solution has some sort of negative effect on one or more of their neighbors, or would cost the city an unreasonable amount of money, or would violate local, county, or state law. And that's the crux of the pet peeve- the rush by a city council to solve a citizen's problem on the spot instead of letting city staff do some research and flesh out the nature of the problem and possible solutions, costs, consequences, etc.

I admit it- I have succumbed more than once to this strange pressure to immediately solve a citizen's problem while they're in front of us asking for help. Thank goodness for city staff- they usually cool our jets, so to speak, by bringing us back to reality with a dose of potential negative consequences.

I know what you're thinking- city councilor, you're weak, you should stand up to these pushy citizens! Well, maybe you're right. But before you judge me or any other city councilor, get yourself elected to the city council, have the TV camera and a full audience boring their eyes on you, and deal with sincere citizens who have asked for help. It's not as easy as it looks! And the people who come to the city council with a problem in a small town like Troutdale are likely to be your friends or neighbors. They're taxpayers, at the very least.. We're elected to serve them, not give them a hard time.

Sometimes, the citizen(s) who come to a city council meeting to discuss a situation are angry and/or upset. They often insist on an immediate solution, and get even angrier when they don't get their way. The most extreme examples of these angry citizens readily admit they don't care about the possible consequence to their neighbors or surrounding businesses, or the high costs that would be incurred by the rest of the city's taxpayers. They just want things their way, no matter what. And they want their way, right now. These people believe that city ordinances, zoning, procedures etc. are good for other people to follow, but not for them. Self interest at an extreme level.

You know what? I loath these people. There. I wrote it down for all to see. Angry? I understand. City bureaucracies definitely have a tendency to make people angry. Upset? I feel your pain. I really do! I've been in your shoes! But when you demand an immediate solution that may have immediate and lasting negative consequences on your own neighbors or is illegal or costs more money than anyone thinks is reasonable, and when you begin to hyper-dramatize your problem, you lose me.

I hate the glacial movement of government red tape more than anyone, and I never believed it before I began serving on the city council, but glacial movement can be a good thing when there are multiple competing interests to consider before a good decision can be made. Even when everyone agrees on the facts, there are still competing solutions on the table. That's how things work. The city council balances the positive and negative benefits and consequences of competing solutions and decides on a single solution. Someone benefits, someone often loses a benefit. That's politics. And it takes time to make informed decisions. And yes, there are often winners and losers.

Before I ran for office, someone told me that no matter how I voted on an issue, 50% of our citizens would approve, and the other 50% might just hate my guts forever. When I thought about it, this concept was liberating. Because no matter how I voted, I'd get the same result! Some would love how I voted, some would hate how I voted. It took a lot of pressure off decision making. I could make decisions based on what I thought was in the best interest of the entire city, because there was no way I would ever make everyone happy.

Maybe that's why the dance between the city council and citizens asking for something is a pet peeve. Because even though our logic and previous experience tell us we can't make everyone happy, the invisible hand of politics pushes us to try to do so anyway.

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