New world for the city 

City Sage

Oh, for those halcyon days of the 1990s, when the sun always shone, jobs were plentiful, Bill Clinton was in the White House, and all was well with the world!

It was a fine time to be a local elected official or a city employee.

As an employee, your job was safe, your duties light, your bosses reasonable, your promotion certain, and your benefits generous and guaranteed.

As a City Councilor, you knew that revenue would always increase, existing programs and departments would always be funded, and voters would support modest (so we claimed!) tax increases to fund worthy goals.

In fact, they weren't tax increases at all — they were investments!

And even though a certain ill-mannered gadfly with two first names (Bruce Douglas? Douglas Bruce?) tried to break up the party, it didn't really matter. The city grew, sales tax revenues grew, Banning Lewis Ranch was poised for development, and everything was for the best in this, the best of cities.

"Sustainability" was not a word in common use, especially when applied to government budgets. No government employee, from Clinton to Mayor Bob Isaac, conceived of a world of shrinking revenues, bankrupt public employee pension plans and looming structural deficits. Such a world existed only in the sour imaginings of certain disgruntled conservatives, professional Cassandras who had been predicting doom for decades.

The Cassandras finally were right. So here we are, in a new world that requires leaders unshackled by the past and ready to solve the problems that we so carelessly bequeathed them.

Those leaders won't be found among the blowhards, charlatans, cranks, fabulists, ignoramuses and Obama-thumping hypocrites seeking the Republican presidential nomination. They won't emerge from the hard lefties and radical righties paralyzing Congress. They'll come from way down the political food chain, from minor-office holders, nonprofit execs, quirky businesspeople, and young, smart folks who are fearless enough to think they can clean up messes that took old, not-so-smart folks decades to create.

Who are our cleaners? Or rather, who is our cleaner?

Da Mayor, Hizzoner Steve Bach. I doubt whether anyone, least of all those who helped create the strong-mayor form of government, realized how quickly and decisively Bach would seize the reins of power.

Prior to Bach's inauguration, city government was famously slow-moving, even hidebound. Council appointees, such as the city attorney and the city clerk, received what amounted to lifetime appointments. City department heads typically rose through the ranks, spending their entire working lives as city employees. City budgets were incomprehensibly complex, massive information dumps that revealed everything and nothing.

Unable to meaningfully affect city operations, which were tightly controlled by professional managers, elected officials devoted much of their time to marginalia — downtown revitalization, the U.S. Olympic Committee deal, and revenue enhancements such as the Stormwater Enterprise.

Power was diffused throughout the siloed network. The city was not a single entity, but a group of quasi-feudal duchies, each defending its turf, at best allies of convenience.

So here comes Bach, unceremoniously kicking the once-powerful lords of the city to the curb and daring City Council to do anything about it. He's even made it clear to his fellow elected officials that his writ extends to Memorial and Utilities, areas that the City Charter assigns solely to Council. He's fired the police chief, ended mass DUI stops, and taken down the red-light cameras.

Why? My guess: He's focusing on the long term with flat revenues, hard cheese and parsimonious taxpayers. He may also suspect the era of government grants is drawing to a close, thanks to strapped federal and state budgets.

In a recent conversation, he fended off specific questions about hiring and firing with the ease of a practiced politician.

What did he talk about? The impact of an aging population on state and city finances, and how best to provide long-term care to that population. It was the kind of disquisition you'd expect from John Hickenlooper or Bill Clinton.

Bach has been caricatured as an ignoramus, a mid-level player put in office to do the bidding of a sinister right-wing cabal led by Steve Schuck, Steve Bartolin, Chuck Fowler and Jon Medved.

But the reality is very different. Try King Stephen the Conqueror.


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