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Thursday, December 30, 2010

End of the Camden Library...just shut down the city

The City of Camden, NJ has had a public library system for 105 years. Pink slips were given out to all library staff today, effective Feb. 11, 2011. Three branches of the library will close. One will reopen in mid-February as a branch of the county system. The main branch downtown will not reopen. Instead the building built by the county fairly recently will be the only open library. Unfortunately it is not easily accessible by public transit. Apparently, talks are underway to put a county branch inside the Rutgers-Camden library. Why that would be better than keeping the downtown branch (6 blocks away) open, I don't know. County staff would run the RU branch and the county would have to pay for the space. How is this better? It's not.

The library is used by job seekers, kids, and homeless people as well as library patrons. Urban libraries are multi-purpose facilities and important havens in the chaotic urban world. Does the county library system expect to fulfill that need? Will the one remaining branch be able to hold all the users? Will the normal load of users be able to get to the remaining branch? The downtown library is within walking distance of the city's main transportation center. The remaining branch is not. There isn't much of a rationale here for the actions taken, except that the city has a $29million budget shortfall. But that said, why close the convenient downtown branch and leave open the less accessible one? Why would the county want to open a branch at RU? RU already allows anyone to use the library and has a section of computers dedicated to the public.

The kids of Camden are the most vulnerable consumer in this debacle. They play chess, do homework, use computers, and just hang out in a safe place when they are at the downtown library (and probably at the other 2 branches as well). The city and county have given zero indication on how the library patrons will be commensurately served under the county plan. The public deserves to know.

Finally, the library is an important economic development resource. Instead of shrinking it, the city should be partnering with every eco-devo outfit in the tri-county area to expand the library as a part of the economic pipeline. Instead, one of the poorest cities in the country shrinks its library at a time of profound economic vulnerability. Does this make sense?

If this decision calculus is evidence of the acumen for regenerating this city, we might just as well shut it down now and save the pain.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Political Endorsements - Worth the Price of Admission?

In Kansas City it is political endorsement season. The 3rd district is highly contentious, even for endorsement groups in the district.

Endorsements often go to incumbents - a safe move by the endorsing group. The unpopular incumbent Mayor Funkhouser in KC is the #1 exception, not getting any endorsements so far.

The diversity of candidates in this election season is impressive - both in the Mayor's race and in the council races. There are black candidates in many districts, women in every race, and a white candidate in the predominantly minority district.

The Northland has spoken with Forward KC endorsements:
3rd district (no in-district endorsements outside of the Northland)
3rd district at-large - Durwin Rice
Mayor - Deb Herman

The Civic Association (primarily reflecting the 4th district) endorsed:
3rd district - no endorsement
3rd district at-large - Melba Curls (incumbent)
Mayor - Mike Burke

Combined Union Endorsement (Firefighters, AFL-CIO, building trades)
3rd district - Sharon Saunders Brooks (incumbent)
3rd district at-large - Melba Curls (incumbent)
Mayor - Mark Funkhouser (incumbent) <--update

Last night Freedom, Inc. endorsed and it was a shocker:
3rd district - no endorsement
3rd district at-large - Melba Curls (incumbent)
Mayor - Jim Rowland

The Chamber of Commerce and The Heavies (cap infrastructure industry) and Hispanic group endorsements are yet to come.

Chamber of Commerce
Mayor - Deb Herman <--update

There is a great deal of speculation, innuendo, and assumptions about whether endorsements reflect pay-to-play or are in fact honest endorsements of candidate quality. But as political clubs or political action committees, these groups have an agenda, have interests to be satisfied, and have political alliances with a lot of insiders that affect their selections - everything from political consultants, contractors, leaders from other organizations, and so on. Politics is about as inside a sport as you can get, even though it has a very public face.

Given the fractured nature of KC politics in this election, endorsements may not mean much because they don't mobilize a lot of votes. But in a crowded field with a ridiculous primary system that yields only the top 2 vote getters to the finals, just a few votes may have disproportionate influence.

The lack of endorsement by Freedom for 3rd district (in-district) is baffling. I'm sure there is an explanation that is fueled by political alliances (BUF for Brooks and the negative response to that and concern by some for Fletcher). But if Freedom, Inc. won't endorse in the 3rd, then what's the point of making endorsements? And why would Freedom endorse a non-candidate (not yet filed) Rowland who hasn't stepped foot in the 3rd yet? Speculation abounds, but the legitimacy of this organization is once again called into question by those who live outside the 3rd, further hampering the group's effectiveness. Whatever Eric Wesson writes in The Call this week should be a very interesting read. There are contrary reports on whether Durwin Rice sought endorsement from Freedom and if he appeared or not before the board to make a pitch.

Kudos to TKC who's timely info posts and lively political debate keeps everyone informed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Racism, Social Justice and Fear

The holidays seem to bring out the worst in a lot of people. As we enter another year of economic recession/depression, we are going to see a lot more panic, fear, racism, and mean behavior by the haves as well as the have-nots. In other words, forecast is continued ugly.

A white guy angrily confronted an all white/male school board in Panama City, FL over his wife's firing by the district. Or maybe she was laid off - it was unclear. But the husband was upset enough to die for the incident having proclaimed that he would die that day (he did). The school board president was confrontational - claiming not to know anything about why he signed the order to dismiss - sounds like robo-layoffs to me - and then the gunman started shooting at close range and missed everyone. I suspect he may have been shooting while under the influence. Paddy Chayefsky's words ring in my ear - I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.

In the UK, a white robber wore an elaborate latex mask (a movie mask) to make himself look black. The subtlety is like a brick. In Kansas City, gunfire erupted outside a church as a funeral service for a shooting victim was going on, no doubt sending a warning to someone about some gang conflict. A news story commenter quipped, "it's not even safe to be dead in the 'hood." In Camden, NJ people are starting to get worried in the face of looming police and fire layoffs that will leave this poor city even more vulnerable than it already is. Local stores are selling T-shirts with the date of the layoffs on it saying, "this is the day we take our corners back." Apparently drug dealers are buying them up...and are ready to feast on Camden. Kansas City has had 99 homicides in 2010 - mostly on the eastside. There is an election for mayor and council coming up and not much is being said about it, except a lot of platitudes.

People are angry and desperate as layoffs and a jobless non-recovery continue. People look for scapegoats in time of financial crisis. People who are are the cause are not taking responsibility and instead are deflecting. Finger pointing is all the rage these days. Rage is all the rage too - from students protesting violently in Europe, to Wikileaks drama, to China dissident drama, to our own Congress and President filibustering on both sides of the tax issues and using us as pawns in their political games. It's ugly out there folks. Keep your head down.

But I would like to suggest that social justice be given a spotlight as a consideration for moving forward. TKC has a very nice post about this today - Secret Santa Charity v. Social Justice. Comments are coming in and typical of his readership, there are lots of very animated opinions on this. Social Justice is about taking responsibility for complicit and explicit contributions to injustices. In Kansas City as in most other places including Panama City, Camden, etc., there are injustices. If the school district lays off people - do they not have a responsibility to provide some job assistance to those thrown into the job pool? Corporations do this all the time. If there are 99 murders in KC, doesn't the entire city need to work together to support the families of their fellow citizens who have died violently? If Camden is going to lay off police and fire as well as other city workers, doesn't the city need to ensure protection for its citizens and support those laid off who live in the city (police and fire are exempt from residency requirements after a couple of years of service)?

When you cast people adrift due to budget shortfalls, bad economy, or whatever - you don't end your responsibility. In the public sector - they are still your residents, still your citizens, and now they are in a precarious position. When you let your city languish with crime - you cast your citizens adrift to fend for themselves - yet they are still your residents, your citizens, and they are in a precarious position.

I often point fingers on this blog - but let me be clear - it is not out of blame or fault. It is out of taking responsibility. What have you done lately to take responsibility? Help a neighbor? Volunteer at a shelter? Demand action from your city? Get engaged with your community? There is a lot of pain out there. Let's not cower in fear, let's recognize it, take responsibility (not blame or fault), and ease the pain - after all - it is the season of holidays.