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Thursday, April 28, 2005
My Ideal Candidate for Mayor of American Fork - Part II

In my previous article, I offered some essential disclaimers and explanations (which apply today, too), then listed a few characteristics of my ideal mayoral candidate for American Fork. Today's offering is more tightly focused, but not shorter.

One of the most essential characteristics of my ideal mayor in American Fork is an infectious sense of professionalism, particularly in communication. I say "infectious" because it is not enough for the mayor herself to be professional in her image, demeanor, speech, and activities. She must insist on professionalism at every level of City administration, in large matters and small.

Some might wonder why I would make a fuss about professionalism in the government of a small Utah city, where, even if everyone is human, we all know everyone actually means well, etc., etc. (I actually don't know that.) But we are, for example, a city full of taxpayers who aren't crazy about the amount of money they have to send to various levels of government, and who have a vested interest in asking, "What are you doing with my money?" We are happier, less suspicious, and less hostile when we see a healthy culture of professionalism in the City administration. And we're more likely actually to see professionalism in accounting and other administrative matters if there is professionalism in communication, too.

Virtually every administrative activity seems to involve communication, but here's an example which is mostly fiscal. Some residents who have worked with the City over the years have noted that funds would sometimes be expended from a budget category to fund something unrelated to that category, without explanation or warning to, or the approval of, those responsible for that budget category. Visualize a manager or a volunteer leader submitting the paperwork, relatively early in the budget year, for a planned expenditure that is part of a meticulously managed annual budget, only to be told that his entire budget is already gone, having been spent on something else without his knowledge or approval.

This casual, seat-of-the-pants style of accounting could be used to mask all sorts of illicit or dishonest activity, but, when I have encountered it in American Fork, it has seemed merely unprofessional, not malicious. To the current administration's credit, the last year or so seems to have brought much improvement in this respect.

Wanting to improve communication to, from, and within the City administration, my ideal mayor might start with this seemingly small thing, which actually looms very large: She would labor mightily to insure that phone calls and e-mail messages are returned promptly and responsibly. Turned loose in the City Administration Building and elsewhere, this little piece of adult, professional culture, if it really were infectious, would by itself improve the City government's image and effectiveness.

Here is a larger matter. If I were mayor - heaven forfend! - I would want very much to create a public communications office, led by a senior advisor who would manage my administration's communications with City residents and the media, and who would advise City officials and employees in related matters.

This officer (with the help of a good assistant or two) would see that the City's Web site is up to date, accurate, and professional; oversee the publication and updating of city ordinances, proposed resolutions, etc., in easily searchable electronic form at the Web site; oversee efforts to teach City residents about City government generally and about specific laws and proposed measures; work tirelessly to communicate the substance of proposed changes (even zoning variances) to the residents who will be affected; and serve as first contact for residents who need to understand and work with some part of the City administration. He would begin to address the need to communicate effectively with the City's Hispanic population. He might also be liaison between the City administration and volunteer resident committees, insuring that the committees are well-informed and have the necessary staff support - a rare blessing, in my experience.

All of this is because I think more residents should be more involved, better informed, more productive, and more enthusiastic about local self-government. Good government depends on this; in the long term, liberty itself depends on this. On the other hand, if I were a public official who preferred not to be bothered by my constituents and not to have them involved in any useful (some would say threatening) way, or if I wanted them to believe I was hiding something, I would keep doing things as they have been done in the past.

Again, a City administration which is dysfunctional in communication and public relations could be used to mask some very dishonorable activities, but in American Fork's case I think the problem is more innocent. Since the City government collectively does not fully envision the power of public communication or of modern participatory democracy, it cannot be sufficiently committed to either.

The communications officer, as described, would have a difficult job, in the sense of being both the public's advocate with the City and the City's advocate with the public. He would have to be senior enough and trusted enough to be taken seriously by both the City and the residents. The mayor, city council members, and other officials would have to be adult enough not to consider the communications officer disloyal or rebellious for insisting on the public's (shareholder's) right to clear, substantive, timely, and accurate information, and to responsible, professional City behavior.

With or without such a communications office, my ideal mayor would also want to be found often explaining and interpreting decisions and processes and laws, orally and in writing, so the public understands and can even participate usefully. This should happen on any given issue well before the mayor or the public is cornered and defensive, before feathers are ruffled, before the temptation to preach at length to the crowd at city council meetings becomes irresistible for the mayor or the residents, and before groups of frustrated residents flee to a lawyer's office to file suit against the City.

Finally, to the extent possible, the mayor, through the communications officer, would insure that letters, newsletters, Web pages, and other communications issuing from the City (that's the administration, not the "city" in the sense of its population) are written in literate English (or Spanish, as the case may be). She would also take care to exhibit the same literacy in her speeches as mayor.

Some would say I expect too much, even on this last point. After all, we live in a time where students in the public schools routinely bring home notes and newsletters, written by certified teachers and administrators, which are textbook samples of poor spelling, poor grammar, poor diction, and generally incompetent writing. If our self-described "educators" themselves are either unable to or don't care to master the English language, why should we expect our small-town City government to do so?

To that, and in conclusion, I say two things: First, it is an impressive, reassuring thing to see the public face of a public institution that is staffed by well-educated, literate professionals. Second, this is the 21st Century, not the 19th. You might say I'm looking for a mayor who will drag our City government - kicking and screaming if it won't go peacefully - into the 21st Century. American Fork has grown beyond its small-town, small-time politics; it's time for its government to catch up.

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