Tuesday, August 21, 2007

More Distractions

Let’s all step away from the ledge for just a second and take a deep breath:

From the NW:

Councilor Tony Palmeri announced shortly after Monday’s brief council meeting that he will begin work today on drafting a referendum to replace Oshkosh’s council-manager form of government with a strong mayoral system.

The referendum, if approved by the council, would be held in November.

"If the council does not ask the citizens to vote on that matter, the citizens will start a referendum on their own," Palmeri said. "If we don’t do that, we are going to put ourselves in the exact same position that the 1996 council was in."

Actually, by changing the city government we will be putting ourselves in the exact same dilemma:

In 1996, as the council was conducting a national search for the replacement of then-City Manager Bill Frueh, a citizen’s group launched a successful petition drive to place a change of government question on the November ballot.

The threat of the change of government caused several top candidates for the job to back out and the council to eventually abandon the search until the matter was settled. After the referendum was defeated, the council offered the top post to Wollangk.

Let’s all just review how we got into this mess in the first place:

Although there had been a string of complaints going back for a good deal of time the incident that brought this all to a head was the lawsuit brought against the city regarding the 100 N. Main project. In other words, it was a failed development project that started this whole row off.

The 100 N. Main project is further complicated by the fact that the developer is also currently in charge of another high profile – and underperforming redevelopment –project, the old Mercy Medical Center building, that was granted tax-payer funds to redo. Both these projects turned out to be horrible failures in retrospect and now look like the council was essentially blindly gambling with the city’s money.

Add to these the repeated failures to develop the old Pioneer Inn property and the Waterfront and we have ourselves a significant redevelopment crisis in a handful of high profile properties in the city.

This crisis began to intermingle with local politics when a vote was taken on the proposed Waterfront project without the city council being informed of a lawsuit being brought against the city over the 100 N. Main disaster. That lawsuit, which should have been visible coming the second that foreclosure papers were made public and had nothing to do with the Waterfront project, became emblematic of a failure of city manager leadership – and it was at that exact moment in time where Oshkosh lost focus of the real issue at hand – we can’t seem to develop our town to save our lives.

Instead of concentrating on development, we got distracted by L’Affaire Bain, which seemed to be a clarion call “to throw the bums out.” Well, now that’s what Palmeri’s proposal is going to do.

The problem is, the system actually worked.

Bain was allowed back in council chambers for the city manager and the manager resigned after the public outcry. This is what most people have been calling for and they got it. It wasn’t quick or pretty, but neither is government. In the end, this is the result everyone wanted.

So instead of returning our attention to the task of redevelopment, what do we go ahead and do: try to “fix” the government.

This will get us nowhere right now.

If we switch to a strong mayor system, we will be required by law to elect someone from the city. This limits our odds of getting someone with the skills to help fix the development crisis in Oshkosh at the moment. There may be someone in town with the skills to both run the city bureaucracy and woo businesses to town, but why draw from a local pool of 60,000 when we can draw from a national pool of 300,000,000?

We do not need someone who “knows local issues” … those aren’t that hard to learn, and anyone who’s been thrust into a position of local government will learn them quickly. We need someone with management skills and the ability to bring businesses to Oshkosh. Instead of creating a strong Mayor, we should find a strong manager and invest in him the responsibility to grow the city.

This will become all the more important in the immediate years to come. I have said elsewhere (see the comments) that I think there will soon be hard economic times in Oshkosh, as there will be all over the county. As long as there is uncertainty about what kind of government we will have in the future we will not be able to find a qualified manager to fill the position – just like what happened in 1996. And as long as city government is in turmoil no one with a dollar to spare will bother investing in Oshkosh redevelopment.

Right now government is not the problem, getting the city developed is. Changing the government and all the attendant worrying that goes with it is a distraction on par with McHugh’s cottonwood trees – only the ramifications could be catastrophic.

Now is not the time to worry about the structure of the local government – to do so would to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water and take advantage of an unpopular public sentiment with a certain public official. That's not what's needed right now. This debate will inevitably be framed in terms of "do we want more democracy or less?" but that's not what this is about.

What's needed is someone who can do the job and it's the council's job to find that person. Palmeri's move to change the structure of the municipal government is essentially abdicating the responsibility the voters entrusted the council to fulfill -- that's not democracy, but willful negligence of the people's trust.

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