Sunday, February 8, 2009

Update on Concerns about Citizen Input and City Government: While My Own Committee Appointment May be Imminent, Larger Questions Remain

Is City Government Losing Its Traditions of Citizen Involvement
and becoming more and more like State Government at its worst?

Thanks to the dozens of my Madison neighbors who responded with affirmations via email and in person to my last blog posting, expressing concerns about the politicization of the committee appointment process in Madison. In fact, much of the last two weeks has been filled by chance meetings in both the real and online worlds with new friends and old who have hugged and high-fived me, patted me on the back for "speaking truth to power," given me irreverent "you go, gurl…." encouragements, and otherwise let me know that what happened to me and my lost appointment application is an experience that's widely shared, and that something needs to change.

A couple of days after my posting, I received a phone call from Mayoral aide Ray Harmon, who apologized on behalf of the mayor and himself—my application had somehow been inadvertently lost in the shuffle. To make a long story short—things are now back on track, and I may receive my requested appointment to the Equal Opportunities Commission as soon as April. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. And I'll keep you posted.


Still, most of the general concerns I'd expressed in my last posting are still ongoing. I know systems. I know how to make my voice heard. So it's one thing if I'm able to get the mayor's attention. But it's apparent from everything I've heard in the last couple of weeks that dozens and dozens of Madison citizens feel that their applications for public service on city committees and commissions have either fallen through the cracks—or they've come to the conclusion that they mayor is not looking favorably on them because he disagrees with something that they've said or done. Regardless, they aren't getting their calls returned, good people are feeling excluded, and their faith in their local government has been shaken.

Something's still broken here. And, equally distressing, the folks in the mayor's office and many members of the Common Council don't seem to believe that anything needs fixing.

Although they would deny doing anything unethical or inappropriate, they also seem to feel allegations of strong-arm tactics, patronage, or favoritism are missing the point.

Since there's nothing strictly illegal about what they're doing, they seem to be saying, it's simply a matter of making use of a tool that's at the mayor's disposal. People will now think twice about crossing the mayor, and using the committee appointment process primarily as a means of appointing people who are unequivocal supporters of Mayor Cieslewicz's position on the issues is simply the politically wise, pragmatic thing to do. Seemingly oblivious to the large numbers of alienated former Cieslewicz supporters I've been hearing from in recent days, the mayor and his advisors seem to think that the mayor is strengthened politically by projecting this kind of image of might makes right.

As often happens with political incumbents when the fact of incumbency broadens one's potential base of support, the mayor is actively seeking out the political middle ground, and members of the business community who might not have originally supported him, as a means of further building his political base. So he doesn't seem to be afraid of losing a few of his original supporters he's now defined as being on the political fringes. In this sense, he might very well see himself as acting very much like Barack Obama in reaching out across the walls that divide us. But there's an important difference here--at least in theory, President Obama is embracing a philosophy that allows him to reach out to those with whom he disagrees on the right with a strategy that attempts to make sure that he doesn't leave any of his core supporters behind. Mayor Dave, on the other hand, seems to think it's in his best interests now to use his consolidated power in a way that pushes away and seeks to diminish the influence of anyone who disagrees with him.

In addition to his questionable use of committee appointments in consolidating his political power, he's also attempting to discredit these same people, under the guise of "political courage," by trying to paint them as hopelessly out of touch with the public that lives beyond the liberal isthmus. This ignores the fact that Madison's progressive traditions transcend being exclusively rooted in any one part of town.

In fact, my gut tells me that this "political courage," is actually "political shortsightedness," and may be a huge miscalculation for a number of different reasons. For one thing, it's generally wrong-headed to blacklist and disrespect potential allies with whom you share a broader philosophy, because you've disagreed with them on a handful of issues. For another, it ignores changing political realities on a larger scale that tilt toward public support of a broader, more communitarian social justice agenda on the part of all government of the kind we haven't seen since the New Deal. Discrediting community organizers and other politically active folks in Progressive Dane and other independents to the left of the Democratic Party at this point in history rings more true with the politics of Sarah Palin than it does with the new era represented by an Obama presidency. But, time will tell.


One of the ways that critics of the status quo have been silenced or discounted recently is a concerted public relations effort to make those who raise concerns about public process seem out of touch, and out of favor, and therefore, not worth listening to. This has been reflected in recent coverage in the mainstream press. Since many of the critics who are strong believers in public process have come from parties and positions on the left (although this is an issue that transcends ideology), it's become important, therefore, to somehow paint a picture of Madison moving beyond its progressive traditions to the much politically safer territory of mainstream "political pragmatism." Like "judicial activism," the definition of this brand of pragmatism varies depending on the goals of those who wield it. Rather than being an expression of some sort of positive political alternative, however, it's become an oratorical tool for disempowering an entire group of people, by defining those who seek social change as somehow out of touch with the "ordinary citizen's" reality.

This week's Capital Times contains a long analysis piece on the current fortunes of Progressive Dane, Local leftist political party no longer at height of its influence.

However, the piece didn't impress me much, despite the clear attempt of writer Kristin Czubkowski to be thorough and even-handed. It just doesn't go far enough. Like much of journalism these days, it's lacking in the ability to rise above the false dichotomies and oversimplifications that accompany partisan posturing to analyze the many levels of what's happening out in the real world of the community, and to relate it to developments in the nation and the world today, as well. Instead, the article creates yet another opportunity for political theater that entertains rather than political reporting that informs and explains--and the resulting article was mostly another combative verbal ping-pong game between leftist PD'ers and their moderate Democratic Party counterparts. The substantive issues raised by PD leaders and other interviewees were, in large part, discounted. And the article missed the opportunity to seek an intelligent analysis from people outside of that polarized matrix of Left vs. Really Left conflict, where most Madisonians exist. It also presented a superficial and relatively static snapshot of current political realities, in declaring PD successes or failures in recent elections as the sole litmus test of where Madisonians may or may not have moved on the political spectrum. But, as we learned all too well in the political primary season just passed, anyone who relies on a small set of snapshots to portray changing political realities is missing the fact that nothing remains static in politics, particularly at a time of major political change nationwide. And surface developments often obscure the deeper and more profound political currents that lie beneath the surface.

The article also reinforces tired old clich├ęs that bolster the specious argument that Madisonians are suddenly only concerned with street repair and garbage pickup, something that when you step back to look at the bigger picture, seems to be more than a bit counterintuitive. Yes, we're all concerned with the basic delivery of services, but our collective vision is not nearly that narrow. Madison is Madison, in part, because we look beyond just those important basic concerns to work on underlying social problems, and we often come up with some amazing "out of the box" solutions along the way because of this ability to look deeper. And we do so through a lens of concern about the challenges facing people both throughout our own community, and also worldwide. Instead of constantly deriding a Common Council that has often weighed in on issues of international human rights and city programs that support the building of relationships with people worldwide, it's time for us to claim this is a community strength. That's not pie in the sky idealism, that's the kind of practical, holistic approach to the increasingly interconnected world we live in that's becoming the new paradigm.


This article mirrors another recent Cap-Times article that maintained that Madisonians are becoming less politically involved, by comparing the number of people who engaged in political marches in the 1960s with those who march today. That article ignored the fact that political organizing is morphing, and that people are more likely and able to connect with others working for social change online and in smaller social settings than they are in continuing the time-worn traditions of mass marches. Anyone who spent any amount of time on campus and in the community during the presidential campaign season could not deny that thousands of local people have become involved in the political life of this nation in ways they never have been before. But protest marches are no longer the measure of citizen action. The times have changed, and so have the ways that we measure citizen involvement.

So I just don't buy the notion that Madison is abandoning its progressive traditions, for more "down-to-earth" concerns. It's a condescending and short-sighted assertion, and an excuse for political mediocrity being circulated among too many of the current crop of local elected officials. At a time when the nation and the world are transforming, why would thousands of politically concerned Madisonians retrogress to ways of narrow thinking that take them away from expectations of an open, inclusive, citizen-responsive local government? People who cynically believe otherwise do so at their own political peril. If you're really out there in the community hearing from people from every walk of life in every part of town, the last thing you'd conclude is that Madisonians don't care about political reform and social justice anymore. But too many people in the ivory castles of our government have become cut off from that reality.

In fact, one cogent piece of analysis in that Cap-Times article is that many politically-active Madisonians have been investing their energy in the national movement for change sweeping the country, which has left them little time or energy to pay attention to the local political scene.

And one has to remember that a hallmark of the national movement that swept Barack Obama and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress into office was a desire for a reformed system that once again allowed people a voice in their government.

Put these last two paragraphs together, and you don't come to the conclusion that Madisonians have traded in decades of commitment to neighborhood-based, citizen-accountable, open and inclusive government for some sort of wishy-washy political pragmatism. It means that most of us have been off working on the bigger picture for a while, but still have the same basic beliefs and principles—something that's been even more reinforced by the hope that's come with recent changes at the national level. And now that we're beginning to have the time and energy again, when we look at what seems to be happening to local government, and the end-runs around democratic process, it concerns us deeply.

And it bears repeating—politicians ignore those concerns at their own peril. This city is filled with highly qualified, public-minded individuals with an interest in public service who would love to see what they could do as mayor. If that happens, the concerns I'm raising about the way that Mayor Cieslewicz has been wielding power will rise very much to the fore. If current trends continue, in 2011, the mayor may very likely face a backlash from the citizenry producing the same situation as faced his predecessor—a multi-candidate mayoral primary packed with serious contenders, one which he might not survive.

But, all of that could change, if the current mayoral administration reframed the concerns I've raised here, and began to see increased citizen involvement an opportunity, not a threat. It would also involve putting time and resources into making the increased involvement of a diverse citizenry real. And there's still time for that to happen.


Two people's stories stand out for me among those I've heard from since I wrote that original blog entry.

One is my friend Mike McCabe, executive director of the government watchdog group, the Wisconsin Democracy campaign—a nationally-respected expert in the field of clean government and government reform. Mike responded as follows to an inquiry on his Facebook page:

Saw your post, John. Good points. In particular, when you talk about making the process of city appointments more transparent, more focused on qualifications and less subject to political consideration, you hit the nail on the head.

By the way, I've had direct experience with the committee appointment process. When the city established the Blue Ribbon Committee on Clean Elections, I submitted an application. Never heard back. Learned that I wasn't selected from the newspaper. Guess I wasn't qualified.


By far the most touching—and deeply disturbing--response I've had came from a close friend who has devoted her life to government service as a means of achieving social justice. Once a part of the state of Wisconsin's bureaucracy, this friend now works for the city.

State government, in her experience, was a great disappointment, because decisions were generally made completely separate from any sort of public input. This meant that money, power and privilege often determined whose voice was heard. Of course, this sort of thinking still continues in legislative and executive branches that made no movement toward reform in the wake of the Jensen and Chvala scandals—abuses of power rooted in the increasing concentration of power in the hands of a few-- to pass any sort of significant campaign or government reforms.

For my friend, becoming a part of city government, and having the opportunity to work with citizen committees and commissions, was like a breath of fresh air. It gave her hope again in the ability of government to be a reflection of the will of the people. And so it has been deeply disturbing for her to see and hear evidence that the city might be moving away from the proud traditions of its past, as reflected by the recent actions of the current administration and many members of the Common Council.


Of all of the things I've heard these past couple of weeks from citizens and officialdom alike, it's this central irony that still keeps coming back to haunt me.

People want to serve, who are "being lost in the shuffle," or feel they're being excluded because they aren't willing to give up their own independent judgment by agreeing to vote in lockstep with the mayor. From the perspective of city government, however, there just aren't enough people applying--especially enough people from enough diverse constituencies and backgrounds to mirror the full diversity of the city.


Despite my own pointed criticisms, I'm still hoping that mayor will see it in both his own political self-interest--and the best interests of the city--to help lead us to a better place. If not, I think that there's enough of a rumbling out there for a grassroots effort to take hold. That train will likely leave the station with or without the mayor and other members of the political establishment. But it would be so much better if we could all leave the station together.

Continuing on the current path is likely to continue to erode citizen trust in government. And that's not good for anyone. So the first question that people have been bringing to me is: what can we do to change things?
The obvious first step is to de-politicize the committee appointment process, and to make it more inclusive and transparent.

Current applicants must be engaged with. If the problem is that they're applying for positions for which they may not be best suited, then someone needs to tell them that, and offer them other options for service. If the problem then still remains that there are not enough people coming forward who are willing to serve, then we need to take proactive steps to recruit, train and support citizens willing to come forth to offer their life experience and expertise in service to the city.

A simple place to start would involve some good public process—a series of community-wide forums or hearings where current and past appointed officials could offer their testimonials about the value of public service, with new processes in place to ensure that citizens' applications will be duly considered and acted upon. It could also start by establishing a hotline or otherwise making sure that citizen inquiries about the committee appointment process are being answered. Active partnerships between the mayor's office, common council members, city departments, pro-democracy nonprofits, and civic groups could also make a difference.


Working together, there's much to be accomplished. But ignoring the problem becomes a vicious cycle that will only engender more disconnection and distrust between Madison residents and their government. Building on our proud traditions, we can turn this situation around.