Friday, October 14, 2011

Citizens for Bitter Government

The faded, peeling reminder on the Wall of Fame of the selection of Portsmouth as an All-America City, in 1979

     There are times when I feel sorry for an opponent. This is one of those times. I am not opposed to the city manager form of government per se, as I pointed out in a previous blog but I am opposed to Portsmouth switching back to the manager form of city government because our corrupt government and vice-ridden river city is wholly unsuitable for it. A city has to be at a level of ethical and professional maturity before the city manager form of government will work, but Portsmouth is no where near that standard, not when petty criminals, failed businessmen, scofflaws and people with degrees in music education often wind up being “public servants,” often after being appointed to office by our corrupt city council. Still, I can’t help feeling sorry for the Citizens for Better Government (CBG), the group supporting the switch back to the city manager. On October 11, 2011, the CBG circulated a press release that included the following pathetic and misleading argument in favor of the city manager form of government:

“Back in 1979, citizens of Portsmouth were proud and excited for the future. It was in this year that the National Civic League named Portsmouth, for the first and only time, an ‘All-American City’ [sic]. And this incredible award and honor was due to the accomplishments off [sic], amongst many… Portsmouth’s City Manager” [emphasis added].

     It struck me as odd that the city manager who was instrumental in Portsmouth winning this “incredible award” was not named. I assumed it was just an oversight that the CBG hadn’t given credit where credit was due. But then I remembered who the city manager was in 1979, and then I realized not mentioning his name was probably not an oversight on the part of the CBG but rather a deliberate omission. The city manager in 1979 was none other than Barry Feldman, the most controversial of the thirty or so city managers that Portsmouth had from 1930 to 1988. In 1980, the city council voted to fire Feldman, as the city charter gave them the authority to do, but the unelected rulers of Portsmouth organized a recall movement that removed the councilmen, not Feldman, from office. Clayton Johnson (according to the Sentinel) got him reinstated. Reinstated or not, no city manager did more to discredit Portsmouth and the city manager form of government than Feldman, so naturally the Citizens for Better Government would not want to mention his name, which had become synonymous with bad government. The Citizens for Better Government not only left out the name of the controversial city manager whom they credited with getting Portsmouth the All-America City designation, they also got the name of the award wrong. The correct name is not the All-American City; it is the All-America City.

The unnamed city manager
     If Barry Feldman was such a great city manager, the question arises: why didn’t Portsmouth’s Wall of Fame, created in the early 1990s, include him among the stars on the wall? Again, it might have been an oversight, but that was probably not the case since Feldman had become an embarrassment to the city and had left not long after being reinstated. Turnover was frequent and a destabilizing feature of Portsmouth’s city manager system of government. Feldman’s four years as city manager was the most bitter period in the last sixty years of Portsmouth’s political history. If Feldman is the CBG’s idea of an ideal city manager, then that group should more appropriately be called not Citizens for Better Government but Citizens for Bitter Government, which is what we likely will be returning to if we go the city manager route again. As long as a majority of the city council are the pawns of Portsmouth’s unelected rulers, which is usually the case, it doesn’t make much difference what kind of city government we have, though I think it is better to have a bad mayoral than a bad city manager system. At least a mayor is not designated by the charter as the servant of the city council, which a city manager is. Keeping the mayoral form of government in Portsmouth will assure that the checks and balances that American government at all levels is based upon will be retained, for what it’s worth. 

The National Civic League 

     It’s worth taking a closer look at the National Civic League (NCL), the organization that makes the All-America City awards, which the Citizens for Better Government in its press release glorified as “this incredible award and honor.” There is no denying that the National Civic League is very good at public relations. If one of the aims of advertising is to persuade people to buy products they don’t need and can’t afford, then one of the aims of public relations is to spin the news so much that the public is too dizzy to know which side is up and which down, or which corporation not only profits from but also preys upon the public and which doesn’t, and which politician is honorable (a rare bird) and which dishonorable. Incidentally, the CBG conferred  on one of its members, a former controversial Portsmouth councilwoman, the title the Honorable Anne Sydnor, which shows you how much the term honorable can be misused for public relations purposes. The essence of public relations, in my view, is, through deceptive practices, making anything, no matter how bad, look better. Isn’t that why public relations practitioners are called “spin doctors”? 

     The chief spin doctor of the British government was later forced to resign after she recommended on the day of the 9/11 attacks that it was a good time to release any bad news the government might be sitting on because it would be buried beneath the horrendous news of 9/11. Isn’t that the most cynical kind of public relations you ever heard of? The NCL spins not only on behalf of the cities it selects as clients but even more on behalf of itself. Remember the movie The Miracle Worker? The NCL is so good at spinning that the public might end up believing that America might sink into chaos if the miracle working NCL was not there to rescue its cities from unemployment, poverty, racism, crime, drugs, prostitution, etc. The National Civic League is so good at promoting itself that it would probably get an All-America Public Relations award if there was an organization in the business of annually granting such an award. If you want to see how good the NCL is at spinning itself, visit their website.

    Where does the NCL get the money to keep their non-profit organization going? It gets corporate support from a wide variety of private and public sources, everyone from State Farm Insurance to the Sprint Foundation, and from Southwest Airlines to the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado. Covering all public relations bases, the NCL is green, diverse, and intergenerational, serving everyone from kids to senior citizens. In contrast to the Ameresco Corporation, which focuses on energy related areas, including in Portsmouth, the NCL hires out its staff as consultants in almost every conceivable problematic area of municipal life. How effective are they? In Portsmouth’s case, not very. Instead of leading to a brighter future, the All-America City award of 1979 was followed almost immediately by bitterness, recalls, recriminations, and continued economic decline, and in 1988 by the scrapping of the dysfunctional city manager form of government. What form of municipal government does the NCL recommend? The city manager form, of course, which is modeled on the business corporation. The city manager system, a reflection free market fundamentalism, is part of the process of the corporatization of America. What is good enough for General Electric is good enough for the All-America City, to rework an old slogan.

Like a Vanity License Plate or a Bald Pate

     The NCL also recommends that cities “Hire NCL to help you dream, create a shared vision, and a specific and achievable action plan.” Are there costs connected with all this? There are, and a city councilman in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a serial All-America City, questioned whether the taxpayers of his city could afford it. When he tried to contact NCL to find out particulars about its operation, he found they played their cards pretty close to their vest. An All-America City award is a little like a vanity license plate: you have to pay extra for it, but does it make a car bigger, faster, or otherwise increase its value? I don’t think so, anymore than it does to have Ohio’s motto, “With God all things are possible” inscribed on your car or head, or should that be “With City Manager all things are possible”?

    Such gestures do not work miracles, anymore than having a city manager form of government does. Costa Mesa, California, is a city manager city, but that did not prevent it mismanaging its finances, leading to the firing of about half the 500 plus city employees, one of whom committed suicide by jumping off the city hall. Even if Citizens for Better Bitter Government think it’s “incredible,” becoming an All-America City doesn’t work miracles. I’m embarrassed for them for having to resort to such a pathetic argument in favor of the city manager, but that is not going to stop me from voting against that form of government on November 8th.

How I will be marking my ballot, voting against the  city manager charter amendment