The logic of the status quo as the path to progress escapes me

Submitted by jpelikan on Tue, 06/22/2010 - 12:44.

Note: Below is something I wrote last month in response to a Plain Dealer Guest Column: Plain Dealer guest column May 23, 2010, 3:48AM Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority has its finances and its priorities straight: by Peter Raskind .

If one looks at other problemed institutions in Cleveland you will find the similar patters, myths, silences, and flaws. This is certainly true in the case of the governance change made a little over ten years ago creating the Cleveland Municipal School District, a one of a kind District in the state of Ohio. We seldom examine how we govern ourselves in the sense of establishing the structures of our failed instituions. That is a mistake. When we do examine the origin of the structures we can see that scope of many of our instituional problems rest in people and actions very distant from the institutioanl performance at any given point in time.

May 23, 2010 Pelikan Response to the PD Guest Column

Given the quantity of information on corruption that we in Cleveland have been exposed to over the last two years, one would wonder if there is still more to be said on the topic. Many are drained, not even able to come to closure on what has been exposed, wanting a break from the corruption in the city story. Two items in Peter Raskinds’ column on the Port Authority suggest that some rocks have yet to be unturned in our civic renewal campaign. We need particularly to be aware of two reform myths at work in Cleveland and in the state.

With a nod to the obvious, Raskind states: the “agency stumbled in 2008 and 2009, with most of its wounds self-inflicted. But, with new, competent leadership, a refocused Board of Directors...” things will be set straight. 

One reform myth is our simple over dependence on the ‘right person’ or the strong leader. Leaders are important, but it is only one of a set of elements required for success of a public agency. A strong man without means of transparency, accountability, and public participation may work for financial entrepreneurs but it won’t lead to success in the mission of a public agency. It is in fact more likely to result in mission failure and corruption.

Next Raskind praises the legislative foundation of the Port Authority, the laws passed in the 1950 and 60s that provided authority for these entities to operate ports, levy tax, issue bonds. The flexibility in these laws is so wide, that a port isn’t required, for there to be a Port Authority.

In the establishing of this sort of public authority, flexibility often means ambiguity or a lack of clear focus. Our second reform myth is such lack of focus is a good thing. It permits legislators to support something that their constituents would otherwise hold against them if what was being done was done with clarity. In this way a variety of agendas can be included, some of which would be unpopular if transparent.

Sixty years ago when this authority was created I assume there were forces seeking public funding and support for private projects but unable to get what they wanted from existing local and regional political authorities. The creation of the Port Authority laws, as means around this unwillingness of local public officials to subsidize private enterprise is something that I’ve heard acknowledged over time in discussions with civic leaders.

The reform stone that has been left unturned is related to the origin, context and foundation of our failed or “stumbling” public agencies. A little mischief or power manipulation at the start and defining of an agency, will over time create the large hole, filled with mismanagement, disregard for public interests, and use of public resources for private profit.

If true, it isn’t something corrected by actions flowing from the reform myths as found in Sunday’s guest column and generally accepted today in civic life. A third claim in Raskins’ column, “Everyone who cares about our community should be supportive of that continued effort.” 

Again he may have in backwards. For caring about our community may only be demonstrated in exposing the flawed foundations of these fifty or sixty year old laws and building solid foundations.

The logic of the status quo as the path to progress escapes me.

So I expect more of the same until the roots of civic reform as practiced with all it mythology is exposed, debated, uprooted and built on solid foundations for a less cynical future.

 

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cleveland civic DNA

 thank you, jpelikan, for these two insightful, well thought out pieces.