Monday, July 27, 2015

Happiness pursued: hearting hockey and public policy

Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor in general, for anything other than itself. - Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1097b 5-8

Taken in by the ball - or hockey - game

If last week's commitment of ink and bandwidth by a local news outlet is any indication, the puck is dropping on this conversation. You know the one. If we just build this sports thing they will come and you will go and it will all be good because economic impact. The one where elected officials who are otherwise locked in a passionate embrace with austerity will discover coin in the city coffers that needs to be given over to support an "ownership group" because economic impact.

The conversation where it must be built now - NOW! - or all will be lost because the team will go elsewhere, because developers need certainty, because Mayo Civic Center is all tore up anyway so might as well, because D-M-C,  not to mention, well, just because. You know, that conversation.

First of all, a junior league hockey team in Rochester would be fine by me.

Why not give it another try. Just because it didn't work last time doesn't mean it won't work this time. Besides, an "ownership group" is doing a study that will conclusively demonstrate to the satisfaction of any reasonable person just how successful this new team would be if it only had a nice arena downtown.

And, to be sure, the "ownership group" (who will own it and reap the profits from the team's eventual sale to somebody else before it leaves town) will show with arithmetic that if they make money we'll all win because "economic impact."*

So it's only fair that we all kick in some money now - NOW! - because otherwise there'll be nothing for the "ownership group" to "own" (and sell later) if we all don't help out with some public monies for their private undertaking. Also, later we can pay these owners to sit in the seats we paid for because free enterprise.  And don't be taxing them! How is an ownership group to make a go of it if the government has it's hand in the till also because free enterprise.

(This model is charmingly called a "public-private partnership." Why would any public official enter into such a partnership? Economic impact, of course. And a little pixie dust called "a multiplier." It is also sometimes called "win-win." No doubt because the "ownership group" wins twice.)

Secondly, a junior league hockey team in Rochester would be fine by me.

Yes, the city is in a big infrastructure budget hole. Yes, the city is desperately hoping that some study will give them the magic beans they need to not fund public safety at the levels requested by the police and fire departments. Yes, council members are lining up Peters to pay Paul. What better time to bring forward a request to add a new hockey arena to the convention center? I mean an ice machine. Who'd seriously propose a big new publicly funded construction project now - NOW!

Even a new arena for a junior league hockey team would be fine by me. New baseball stadium? Sure. I'm also partial to a performing arts center, a mixed use entertainment venue at the Chateau, an arts and culture center, an outdoor concert venue, a few museums, a robust parks system with wide and varied uses - including hockey. It's all good.

Really, it is. Growing the list of civic amenities is not a ploy for some stingy argument about wishes being horses; or, we can't have everything so we can't have anything; or, even as a precursor to we have some tough choices ahead of us and not everyone is going to be happy.

I think we should try to make people happy - as many as we can. Maybe even everyone. Or at least put it in the mix. Admit that we want something, not because economic impact, but because happy. Because happy might just be good public policy.

Being the third among our certain unalienable rights

In their seminal article, "Understanding the Pursuit of Happiness in Ten Major Cities," (Urban Affairs Review 2011 47:861) Kevin M. Leyden, Abraham Goldberg and Philip Michelbach conclude that, "the happiness of city residents requires far more than simply focusing on the economic conditions of a city." They observe:
There is more to individual happiness than income, health, social relationships, and government effectiveness. People also care about the places in which they live and how those places are maintained. This is demonstrated by the significant relationship between happiness and access to cultural amenities, such as movie theaters, museums, and concert halls, along with libraries. 
And hockey, too, I have no doubt. At least in those places where people are made happy by hockey.

Sharing that the “urban landscape is not simply the result of individual choices about where to live or to create a business. It is the product of a multitude of governmental policies," the authors also note that:
The viability of the city and the happiness of its residents will depend mostly on whether policy makers learn to think of the city more holistically and being about people and their lives.
The economic impact folderol misses the heart of the matter because the matter is about the heart. What makes you happy?

This bottom line stuff is what we say because we can't say we want it because it will make us happy. Just tell me you want a junior league hockey team because hockey makes you happy and that's fine by me. That's where we start the conversation and we'll probably have a better one at that. Better city, too.

Tell me what makes you happy and I'll know you're being serious.


*"Take whatever number the sports promoter says, take it and move the decimal one place to the left. Divide it by ten, and that's a pretty good estimate of the actual economic impact." Pat Grafolo and Travis Waldron."If You Build It, They Might Not Come: The Risky Economics of Sports Stadiums," The Atlantic. 09.07.12.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Sometimes a small notion

"Freedom of Speech" (variant) - Norman Rockwell

One way to increase positive feelings about government is to promote citizen involvement. - Chapter 6, Handbook for Minnesota Cities, p. 29

Through a glass darkly

I see that the president of our city council is a new member of the board of directors of the Minnesota League of Cities for 2015-2016. Dedicated to "promoting excellence in local government," the league aspires to be a source of "trusted guidance." Maybe our council president has taken the opportunity to skim the league's Handbook for Minnesota Cities.

Of course, though citing applicable Minnesota law throughout, the Handbook is no substitute for local ordinances and offers no legal advice. None the less, it seems our city now faces a growing threat to the rule of law at city hall brought about by what a local news outlet recently described as "volunteers committed to providing community insights for the city council." In these dark times of citizen participation, a handy handbook may be just what the city council president needs.

First, let's examine the crisis as we now are given to understand it. According to reports in a local news outlet, the city administrator has uncovered that some people - or maybe a person, details are sketchy - are telling him that something he "prefers" not to be going on might be going on in gatherings of "volunteers committed to providing community insights for the city council." Specifically, something the city administrator describes as "negotiations" - or were they described to him as "negotiations"? Again, details are sketchy.

What these allegations of "negotiations" might or might not entail, with whom they are taking place, with what results - we just do not yet know. It seems these "volunteers committed to providing community insights for the city council" operate in the shadows and we cannot learn of their activities except by means of informants. If there were other ways to find out what happens at these gatherings (sometimes called, "public meetings") surely a local news organization would have discovered it by now.

Be careful what you ask for

Admittedly, it is awkward to keep referring to these groups as "volunteers committed to providing community insights for the city council." Perhaps we might call them "citizen commissions," terms used in the Handbook for Minnesota Cities. So, how is it these "citizen commissions" have managed to infiltrate city hall? Here's what we know based upon the public record:

Turns out that these commissions managed to get themselves created by the city council. Then, taking advantage of a process also established by the city council, people living in Rochester have applied for appointment to these commissions. (That's right, people living among us at this very moment.) These applicants are then interviewed by the mayor - who has said in the past that there have been thousands of these interviews. The mayor has then submitted a list of appointees to the city council for their approval. The city council has then approved these appointments.

Well, before you know it, these commissions are operating deep inside city hall. So, you can see just how easily a situation like the one now facing the city can arise.

How about a little respect

In case you missed it, a local news outlet also points out for us that these commissions are "non-elected bodies". That's right, "non-elected bodies" who we now learn have alarmed the city administrator - whose "non-elected" status must need pointing out to this local news outlet since it failed to mention it.

Let's be clear about this much anyway: Non-elected persons appointed by the city council to serve in the government of the city have in some way not yet fully explained, annoyed a non-elected person hired by the city council to serve in the government of the city.

Despite how they are characterized by a local news outlet, these persons are not just "volunteers committed to providing community insights for the city council." They are commissioners. They are serving terms on duly established government bodies to which they have been likewise duly appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council. They operate under the laws of the city and in some cases the state of Minnesota. They perform duties under similar authority. They are part of the government of the city.

The conduct of these commissioners is being called into question by other city officials on the basis of something heard by, let's just say, "an employee hired to provide professional services for the city council." A local news outlet is satisfied that if these commissioners are being subjected to hearsay by the city they have only themselves to blame because the city has not been recording their meetings - except in those cases where the meetings have been  and are being recorded.

Pretty much accused by city staff of the wrongful exercise of lawful authority. Subject now to pending inquiries by the city council. Blamed by the local media for the very hearsay upon which these accusations are thus far based. Well, let's just say it has not been a great couple of weeks for increasing "positive feelings about government" though citizen involvement.

Some light summer reading

Bringing us back to the Handbook for Minnesota Cities and the trusted guidance it might have for the council president and others in this our city in Minnesota.

In its discussion of citizen commissions and boards, the Handbook observes that where formed and encouraged by councils these bodies "have saved time and have made contributions that could only occur through citizen participation." Noting that councils should take care in forming a body "to establish the ground rules for its activities," the Handbook also cautions that the use of these citizen-advisory bodies only works "if the council listens to the advice." Adding, "If the council does not follow the advice of the committee, it should give understandable reasons for taking other action." (Whoa, there's some guidance worth trusting.)

Though the Handbook does not offer "trusted guidance" on how to respond to accusations of citizen-advisors that border on misfeasance (difficult to cover every contingency after all), one might reasonably extrapolate that "understandable reasons" for such accusations would be a welcome gesture here as well, not to mention the downright decent thing to do.

That's a lot of "maybe's" you got there

All in all, if this brewing internecine conflict at city hall is going to afford us an opportunity to review the work of these commissions, then let's do it up right. Perhaps, like the city's comprehensive plan, the city itself is long over due for a review.

Given our status now as a City of the First Class with a downtown that is the site of a 20 year, half billion dollar economic development project.

Given our population is projected to double over that same time bringing with it increased demands for city services and amenities.

Given the challenges on the horizon and at our doorsteps.

Given the city we long to become.

Maybe we should not just revisit "mission statements" of what a local news outlet likes to call "volunteer bodies" to see if they are doing "what the public expects them to do."

Maybe if we do not simply assume, as does a local news outlet, that the preferences of a city employee necessarily reflect the public's expectations, we might find that the public expects something different of everybody at city hall - including elected officials, the people they appoint to serve in city government, and those they hire.

Maybe under the auspices of the charter commission or another citizen-advisory body formed for this purpose, we should revisit whether or not all these servants of the public - elected, appointed, or hired - are doing what we expect them to do, what we need them to do given the circumstances in which we now find ourselves.

In closing, this final bit of guidance from the Handbook might be trusted to light the way:
Council members have found that ignoring citizen concerns can result in their removal from office at the next election, or in the defeat of a program or activity as a result of citizen opposition.  - Chapter 6, Handbook for Minnesota Cities, p. 29

Monday, July 13, 2015

More speech, not less

"Freedom of Speech" - Norman Rockwell

The First Amendment … presupposes that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection. To many this is, and will always be, folly; but we have staked upon it our all.   
- Judge Learned Hand, United States v. Associated Press, 52 F. Supp. 362 S.D.N.Y. (1943), aff’d, 326 U.S. 1 (1945).

Apparently there is some concern amongst certain elected officials and members of the bureaucracy that the good citizens of Rochester are having a bit too much to say about the governance of their city.

From the Post Bulletin 7.13.15 edition story "Rochester City Council weighs citizen input in developments," this:
Developers of commercial and residential property in Rochester are increasingly being encouraged to consult with residents and neighborhood associations before seeking city approval — but the weight the Rochester City Council places on that input is now the subject of a council conversation.
I'm not sure what the issue really is here, but I am pretty sure that any conversation by elected officials about "residents and neighborhood associations" having too much influence on city government is not a good conversation for them to be having. Even worse if they are wondering whether or not they should be listening to these people.

Better, you'd think, to be asking if citizens are having too little influence. Better still to be looking for ways to enhance citizen participation rather than raising concerns about "organizational (bureaucratic) principles." Apparently not, for just two days after the Fourth of July, this:
During the July 6 council meeting, City Administrator Stevan Kvenvold asked whether it was appropriate for volunteer and appointed bodies, including the City Planning and Zoning Commission and the Committee for Urban Design and Environment, to negotiate changes to development proposals.
Notice the concern is expressed as to whether citizens should be negotiating with developers, not whether developers should be negotiating with citizens. Negotiation does after all require the participation of both parties. The implication is that if developers are talking with people, well, OK. But if people are talking with developers, maybe we need to take a look at just what's going on here. Especially, it seems, if some of these developers are listening to these citizens.

Notice too that the reporting includes "volunteer and appointed bodies."

It would appear that the bureaucracy wants to rein in the citizenry serving in appointed positions. Persons who apply for nomination by the Mayor and serve with the approval of the council. Fine. A bit of the professional's sharp elbow to the chin of the interfering amateur. A bit of stick to the rabble at the gates. Inside baseball, best not aired so publicly, but there it is.

But, "volunteer" bodies? 

If the city is beset upon by out of control commissions hijacking the system, imposing their will upon the "people's elected officials," and otherwise cluttering up the orderly conduct of city government by insisting upon participating in it - well, by all means, let's talk about it while we still can. Who knows when these commissions might render the council powerless.

However, for the city to even entertain that its elected officials or administrative staff should be passing judgment upon the "appropriateness" of with whom citizens gather to speak, or about what they choose to speak, or what that speech concludes - the "appropriateness" of that conduct by government officials demands of us serious conversation.

In the end, who would be surprised to learn that the issue is not that some citizens of the city are demanding more influence in its governing, but rather others in the city fear having a bit less.

First, we are told that food trucks cannot be on downtown public streets.

Now, we are told that maybe the public shouldn't be having all that much to say about what is built on the streets in their neighborhoods.

Here's a headline for you: "Rochester City Council weighs citizen input in the voting booth." 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Three Dog Walk


The case of the dog barking in the night

What I recall most of all from the O.J. Simpson case is not the worldwide broadcast of the two hour slow motion freeway pursuit by the Los Angeles police of Simpson in a white Ford Bronco. Nor is it Simpson obligingly demonstrating for the jury that the glove just didn't fit (and thus, ..."you must acquit!").

No, what I remember most of all is the testimony of Steven Schwab. His recollection of walking his dog - elicited in fine detail by the prosecution - was an enthralling narrative of -well- walking a dog.

Leaving just after watching a rerun of The Dick Van Dyke Show, putting on the leash, exiting the home, going down this street, this alleyway, stopping here, crossing there, turning this way, then that. The prosecution wanted a thorough account. Schwab gave it to them. It was fascinating.

Of course Schwab and his dog were of interest because they came across another dog. Nicole Simpson's white Akita - red and white collar, no leash, no owner, distraught, barking, muddy, four bloody paws and legs. At the time Schwab had no idea to whom the dog belonged, he just knew it was a bloody, upset dog that followed him home barking at every house they passed.

Man and his dog and this other dog arrived back home just after the start of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The first call the LA police would get that night about the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman would be about this bloody pawed white Akita that had been barking in the night. They could not have cared less. Nor was Animal Control interested in coming to get this dog. So, neighbors of Schwab, Sukru Boztepe and his wife, Bettina Rasmussen, offered to take the dog in.

Later, when the white Akita would not settle down, the couple decided to take it out and see where it might take them. And so, like every episode of Law and Order ever made, folks walking around come upon the bloody scene of the crime - this time with shades of Lassie.

Did the blood look wet, Rasmussen was asked. "I was remembering, it was coming down like a river," she replied.

The dog that came back. The dog that left.

I was walking our dog, Bodhi, around the neighborhood the other day when I heard someone shouting, "I had a dog like that." He was sitting in a lawn chair just inside his garage. His name is Ed. He's 82. It took a few exchanges to understand it wasn't the breed, or color, but Bodhi's rambunctiousness that reminded him of his dog.

Now Bodhi isn't out of control, but she is intensely interested in smells on both sides of the sidewalk and always eager to move on to the next one. I was very proud of her manners as we walked over to chat with Ed. She sat politely, panting, as he and I visited for a bit.

We were just meeting Ed. The dog he recollected was a feisty one. It would run so fast across the football field that it would fall and tumble two or three times. Maybe a dog better suited for a farm. So, they that's where his dad took it. About 30 miles away.

Well, wouldn't you know about a month later in the middle of the night that dog showed up under his bedroom window howling and barking to get in. Thirty miles it traveled to come back. They kept the dog.

Boy, he sure loved that dog. When he was in the service it really missed him. When he came back it was real happy he had. Gave Ed goose bumps just thinking about him.

There was this other dog, a golden retriever. Cost a bit of money, but they like water and they were living on a lake up in Haywood. Six months after they moved to Rochester, Ed's wife dies of lung cancer. Thirty days to the day after that, the dog dies.

He has a cat now.

The tautological dog

from May 23, 2013:

It was only by chance I recently read that whoever takes on a pet makes a contract with sorrow. Yes, but much joy as well.

The exchange is more than fair. I think we all got the better of the deal. What's a bit of weeping at the close of 14 years of such great loving.

Every dog is just the best dog in the world - and surely Brenna was - which is why all dogs go to heaven.


"Finally," writes Kenneth Burke, "there is the 'tautological' dog. We have here in mind the fact that a dog involves a particular set of associations which, in a sense, reproduce his 'spirit.'"