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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Is Change Happening in Camden - Not sure

I read the story in the Courier-Post this morning about Camden Mayor Redd's assistant, Novella Hinson and her checkered political past. It certainly does not give this resident much confidence in the new Mayor's ability to lead the city out from under the shadow of the Camden political machine. I think the most interesting tidbit from the article is that Mrs. Hinson earns $14,800 as a Camden election commissioner. Nice work if you can get it! I think part of New Jersey's fiscal woes come from the outrageous pensions, salaries for low-show jobs, and no/low contribution benefit packages that are provided to people who get on the public gravy train. Now, I have worked for state supported universities all my life and consider myself a public employee. I feel I have a right to criticize the public sector. I also have made a career out of studying and examining the public sector, so I feel like I know a few things. I know many people look askance at academics because we are eggheads in the ivory tower - whatever that means. I've been on the ground involved in public sector actions since I was old enough to go door-to-door with campaign flyers. I think I have enough experience to make comment.

I can't begrudge the Mayor for making a trusted ally and mentor her unpaid aide. In politics, you need a person you can trust without hesitation. I think it is the other aides that people are concerned about - all the ex-Corzine administration folks that were the "best qualified" to take the positions. I have no doubt they have qualifications. But if there is to be any hope for Camden, the city needs to be able to make decisions that can be independently vetted. Right now it looks like the Democratic machine train has pulled into the station. I don't even have a problem with political machines. I grew up in Chicago when the original Mayor Daily was in office - the trains ran on time, the city grew, and the city operated. Of course it also was a racially prejudiced place that did not tolerate dissension (1968 national D convention head bashing of protesters), and had a corrupt housing authority that eventually had to be taken over by a judge.

A reliance on the expediency of a political machine has a price. In Camden, I don't know if we can afford to pay that price forever. The new mayor has been in office for only a few months. What can you expect in that time? One might expect a plan, a strategy, or a laundry list of items to tackle. We haven't seen that yet. One might expect a commitment to going after federal stimulus funds to boldly take on some of the vexing economic issues facing the city. So far there has been a $750,000 charitable grant to Cramer Hill to hire community planners/implementers, a $21 million grant from HUD for housing repair and development split between two different applications in the city, and .... (sound of crickets chirping). It may be unfair to compare the mayor to Corie Booker in Newark or mayors in other cities, but she is not going to make any lists of exceptional politicians this year if she continues this trend. Unfortunately, her most noteworthy act to date is an attempt to garner more salary dollars for her aides. Not a smooth move Mayor.

Camden has come out from under state control (for the most part) and will have the power to take over the school district, which is a hot mess. So far, two people from that underachieving school district have been appointed to the city council to fill vacant seats due to members moving up the political food chain (including the Mayor). These decisions do not bode well for Camden improvement. Meanwhile, the Mayor has not made any statements about how she will appoint school board members, run the budget commission, or what vision she has for the district.

The absence of direction, information, and leadership in Camden is very disappointing and very troublesome. We have rhetoric in large doses, but specific action, strategic vision, and detailed direction is in very short supply.

It is easy for me to throw criticism from the sidelines. So let me give some concrete suggestions.
  1. outline how school board appointments will be made. What criteria are needed in board candidates, how will they be screened and vetted, and what will be the decision process. Same goes for the budget commission.
  2. outline 5 goals for the rest of the calendar year - whether it is in visible accomplishments, professional benchmarks for city staff, partnerships with measurable milestones - something the city residents can hold the mayor accountable for. Right now, we have nothing.
  3. the mayor made a big deal about economic development during the campaign. What types of development are you going to pursue? How will you decide? We supposedly have a medical school coming that will support Cooper Hospital. What jobs for Camden residents are being supplied or offered by this development? What modern technology, green efforts, sustainable practices are we pursuing? What innovation or bold strokes will be undertaken? Look around and see what other cities are doing. Camden is like a barge stuck in the mud. We aren't doing anything and we are going nowhere.
Those ideas should keep the Mayor and her aides busy for a while. Transparency, accountability, measures, and production. It isn't that complicated - but it isn't easy either. It can be done if there is political will. I can attest that in Camden there is plenty of civic will to support these things. There may not be much civic will to support the current status quo.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Change is Happening in KC - We Knew It Would

I have delved deeply into the civic life of Kansas City since my arrival in 2002. Not even my departure in 2008 has reduced my enthusiasm and belief in this city's potential. It's my occupational sideline - I bet on cities and their trajectory. My research has always been focused on the link between development and community - sometimes looking more at the development side, sometimes more at the neighborhood side. I have long been convinced that it is the dynamic of people interacting in the civic sector (elites, interest groups, and galvanized citizens) that determines the success of development. Development without the support of a wide swath of the public is doomed, regardless of how shiny and new it is or how hip and trendy, nor how well it adaptively reuses the city's history. Jane Jacobs defined this for me - it is the people that make cities work.

The 2010 school board elections, I believe, are a microcosm of what is happening in Kansas City. Change always creates stark differences between groups with different agendas and outlooks. The city has undergone a LOT of changes since 2002.

When people step up to lead with vision and thoughtfulness, with bold ideas and with candor, the genuineness cannot be overlooked. The 2010 KCMSD school board elections represent such an opportunity - people are stepping up, speaking out, and coming together for the common good of educating ALL the kids in this KC district.

The new vanguard is not protecting the few at the expense of the many. They are stepping up for ALL students, ALL parents, ALL citizens to say - enough is enough. The school district MUST function as a reflection of our community, not just a few schools.

In my opinion, here are the people you should follow on FaceBook, Twitter, listen to and interact with at public forums, and step up to volunteer your investment of time with their activities and campaigns. This is a momentous time that puts this city on the cusp of greatness and not gloom and doom as the naysayers will point to. These folks are all on FaceBook, some are on Twitter, and web sites are highlighted. Check them out and support the KCMSD!

Airick Leonard West - school board member, founder of BE1! ( You will always get a strong dose of realism, information, and listening from this public servant. *and in the spirit of disclosure, yes he is my very good friend. Catch him on FB and Twitter.

Kyleen Carroll - school board candidate at-large, former district teacher, and business entrepreneur. She has a head for understanding how to generate value in our district and deliver that to an engaged community. This is not just about balancing the books and finding savings in the district, but connecting it to the parents and community that want a value-added district that serves scholars and the city. We can have both.

Crispin Rea - school board candidate at-large, youth advocate at Mattie Rhodes, Northeast resident and champion, and unfairly maligned for his stint in the Mayor Funky administration. He is young and open to fresh ideas and understands why the Latino 25% segment of the school district population needs the perspective he can bring to the board.

Joseph Jackson -school board candidate 4th sub-district (Helen Ragsdale's open seat - she is not running), parent advocate and leader in the district DAC and SAC - putting ALL parents forward as an important voice in the governance of the school district. For too long, parents have been used as a political tool by those with a very limited agenda. Joseph has listened to the wide variety of parent opinions in the district and as a parent, he is adept at understanding those voices. His experience will bring forth a refreshing voice on the board.

Candace Koba - advocate and volunteer in the KCMSD schools and leader of a movement to engage parents and community members in a broad forum for the improvement of the district. You can sign up for involvement by going to Community Support Link. She is the epitome of a volunteer who cares about the future of the district and sees it as not a black/white divide but as an opportunity to support our children and the future of this city. She is the real deal and asks you to be sure to Register to Vote.

There are several other candidates who are running as new voices - Rose Bell and Bob Peterson.

There are others who are incumbents and newbies running with current board president Marilyn Simmons. I see their platform as the same old politics of divide and conquer with a self-serving protectionist bent that serves a few schools in the district quite well, but gives others a very short shrift. Ms. Simmons has had her chance to improve the district and has served while disaster after disaster has unfolded with poor leadership and cronyism. Her slate of candidates cannot be recommended. Unfortunately, her opposition candidate failed to reach the ballot and, therefore, she is automatically returned for yet another term.

April 6 is election day. If you are not registered to vote - you have until March 10 to do so (
Register to Vote). This is a critical and pivotal point in the life of Kansas City. These folks are the real deal. They are not grandstanding for politics. They are putting their butts on the line for the scholars of this district. Your time will be well spent following their lead and doing the same!