City Manager Turnover: Causes and Solutions

City Manager Turnover: Causes and Potential Solutions

Experience and observation

Turnover of town and city managers can have lasting impact on communities for a variety of reasons, including cost, loss of confidence among staff, lack of faith in government in the community, and the emotional toll on hiring committees and publicly elected officials, most of who serve on a volunteer or very low-paid basis.

My first experience with hiring a top executive to run a city was in 2008, when I was newly elected to the city council of Rockland, Maine. I had absolutely no experience hiring anyone other than perhaps a teenager to mow my lawn, but I was enthusiastic, had the energy and determination of about twenty people, and knew how to convince large numbers of people to believe in my various causes. I believed I could do anything. With excitement and anticipation, I began my first real job on the council: hiring someone who was about to earn more than my house was worth each year. Arriving home after a meeting, I opened packet containing forty resumes on my kitchen table, got a cup of tea, and ripped open the seal. Within ten minutes, I knew I was in trouble. I had absolutely no idea how to differentiate between the individuals behind the resumes. I didn’t know how to tell what the resumes were telling me that the applicants could do what their qualifications were. In short, every resume seemed exactly the same. No one stood out. This, I began to realize, was going to be very different than distinguishing between political candidates. How would I ever know who to get behind?

In ten years, my hometown of Rockland, Maine has gone through three city managers. But that’s nothing compared to Silverton, Colorado: seven managers in ten years, and the last manager managed to get into such hot water with the fire department that they refused to shoot off the fireworks at the community Fourth of July festivities.

In these ten years, I have learned what a city manager does, and I’ve also realized that it’s a job I would absolutely love, because a city manager does everything that makes people’s lives better without the hassle of running for political office, and the pay is a whole lot better. But, given that I have always carried some of the blame of Rockland’s various city manager failings, I decided to spend some time researching failed city manager hiring processes, and I soon realized that Rockland isn’t alone. Many communities are facing the same issues that we faced, and yet we didn’t know that we weren’t unique. As a result, I decided to find out some of the reasons this hiring process isn’t working for communities, and how the process could be made better. I have been speaking to a variety of town and city managers, publicly elected officials, and professional consultants who are paid to hire city managers, as well as community members, to gain a perspective of how these stakeholders feel about the process, and what they feel could be different. I am researching documents from professional organizations for public administrators, and hope to talk to representatives from the International City Manager’s Association, (ICMA) Maine Municipal Association, and the Colorado City and County Management Association (CCMA). This process is proving to be a lot more involved than I thought it would be, and it has taken me a few weeks of thinking about how to proceed with the project.

Types of management of towns and cities

There are two types of municipal governance: either a council-manager form, in which a professional manager is hired (or in some cases, fired) by the city council (City of Rockland Charter, 1983), or a mayor-council arrangement, in which an elected mayor serves in the capacity of a manager. One city in Maine that functions in this manner is Portland, where Ethan Strimling is currently mayor. An interesting aspect of the mayoral-council system is that one does not necessarily have to hold a management degree. For example, Mr. Strimling’s master’s degree is in Education (Mayor Strimling – Brief Bio, n.d.). However, he has spent most of his life in public service, and worked for a community non-profit for much of his professional career before being elected to lead Portland.

However, most advertisements for city or town managers for places that function with a professional manager specify that the manager should have some kind of public administration degree, and at least five years in a management capacity. On the International City/County Management Association website job board (ICMA Job Posts, 2017), even the tiny town of South Fork, Colorado is hopeful that they will snag someone who has a master’s degree in some form of management, and who has progressively moved up in the ranks of town management over the past five years. This is in contrast to a town or city that elects its leader in the form of a mayor. In this case, the townspeople are essentially- and perhaps, quite frighteningly so- the HR department, considering that it is through the ballot box that the mayor is either hired or fired.

Or, looking at this situation from a more positive stance, perhaps a mayor who runs a town, elected by the people, stands the best chance of working with the people and retaining employment. Maybe, as I heard many times from the podium when I was a city councilor: “we have people in the community right now who could do this job. So why do we need to hire a head hunter for $15,000?”

Or…did we? To play devil’s advocate, why would towns and cities advertise for professional managers when someone just as capable with experience and foresight could perhaps be found? Is managing a town really a specific skill, and if so, why do towns and cities have such a hard time retaining professional managers?

According to Greg Schulte, retiring town manager in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, (Schulte, 2017), there are better-paying jobs out there for people who have invested the time and energy into becoming a manager, that don’t involve political turmoil, job threats based on political agendas, or excessive evening meetings. People who manage towns are always subject to the interests of the council, and the makeup of the council changes often. Sometimes, councilors will get elected with differing agendas than that of the manager, or perhaps with the councilors who served previously. In which case, job security may be fleeting.

In addition, the salary of a town manager is less than a comparative management position in the private sector. A person who pursues the job of town manager must be willing to derive personal satisfaction for a job well done and consider that satisfaction as part of the compensation package.

Mr. Schulte also added that it’s also very important for a good manager to remain without discernible opinions so that the community doesn’t perceive that the manager is biased in any way toward one particular group. For example, he does not attend a church in the community or any political functions, lest anyone consider him to be of one particular religion or political party. This is in direct contrast to Mr. Strimling, who was a Democratic Maine Senator for six years, and has clearly and proudly served on many Democratic campaigns, as well as on many committees addressing left-leaning issues. And yet, he is a popular mayor leading the city of Portland- though yes- Portland does have a city manager.

How Are HR Issues Handled?

Given that it can be difficult to find a professional manager that the majority of townspeople like, outside of electing a mayor, many towns turn to using professional consultants to gather resumes, conduct background checks, check references, and engage in the types of Human Resources functions that a smaller town may not have the ability to perform in-house. Two such consultants are Don Gagnon and Dick Metivier, who work through the law firm of Eaton-Peabody, in Augusta, Maine. According to Dick Metivier, the best way to find a good manager that everyone will work well with, and like, is for the city council or the hiring committee to do a lot of preparation before advertising for the job to be sure that everyone knows who they want. For example, if a town has HR issues pending, finding someone with HR experience is more important than someone with grant writing experience. If the town has many public works projects in full swing, it’s important to try to find someone with knowledge of project management (Metivier, 2017). I worked with Don and Dick when I was on the Rockland City Council in order to hire two city managers, as the first one we did hire, my very first experience on city council, resigned after two years. Her letter of resignation stated that she had previously intended to sell her home a couple hours’ commute from Rockland, and move permanently to our community, but in the course of two years, her husband had decided that he did not want to move to Rockland, and she had decided she didn’t want to leave her custom-built home. However, there had been a good deal of internal friction between this manager and some members of city staff. The manager had tried to come to the council with these issues, as the council essentially functioned as the Human Resources department, remembering, of course, that none of us had any HR training, and unfortunately as a result, the city manager did not have her issues resolved in a satisfactory manner.

What followed was that this particular city manager, while a very good collaborative worker with deep connections on many useful boards and commissions throughout the state, was somehow not strong enough. As an aside, I did not agree with this assessment. What followed was another session with Don and Dick, the end result being that the council hired a former marine as the next manager, thinking that a military man would provide the necessary strength and discipline to straighten out the somewhat disparate ranks of city staff. I did not agree with this assessment, but in the end voted with my colleagues because this particular candidate did appear to know how municipal infrastructure worked, whereas some of the managers we’d interviewed did not seem to have a depth of knowledge concerning large, publicly-funded projects and we were in the midst of a sewer project that involved the entire Main Street being dug up and completely impassible, with the summer tourist season looming ahead.

This choice of manager similarly did not bode well for the city. He did, indeed, have a very authoritarian style of management, and immediately rubbed most city staff the wrong way. He locked down all city staff communication with council, insisting that the council should, per charter, only communicate with him and any inquiries for staff should go through him. This policy made simple matters such as emailing the code enforcement officer to ask a question on behalf of a citizen a very tedious matter. The manager then embarked on a routine inspection of all staff computers at random to ensure that no communication was going on without his knowledge. To make matters worse, he had an altercation with the Community Development Director that turned into a gender-based harassment charge resulting in the director resigning ubruptly and gaining a settlement of four month’s salary and remaining benefits for the year, and a gag order in place so none of us ever knew what really happened (Betts, 2012). Not long after this event, the city manager also resigned abruptly (Betts, 2013).

What followed was a community outcry about the way in which city managers were being recruited. The people of the town turned out in droves at council meetings demanding that the city council not hire “headhunters” such as Dick Metivier and Don Gagnon again, and that individuals from within the community be tapped to find the next city manager. One of the citizens leading this charge was Louise McClellan Ruf, who eventually was elected to the city council and then appointed mayor by the other councilors, which is largely a figurative office in Rockland, as the city has a professional manager. The council elected to hire outside recruiting help in the end, but this time in the form of Dacri and Associates, rather than consultants from Eaton-Peabody.

There were differences between the ways that the two firms pursued recruiting. The consultants from Eaton-Peabody, Don and Dick, employed a more traditional means of finding candidates. They placed an advertisement on the ICMA and the Maine Municipal Association websites, advertised in a few newspapers, and then waited for candidates to send their resumes, the number of which were submitted increasingly decreased which each new scandal or resignation. They then sorted through the resumes and picked out about ten or twenty that they thought the council should see. The council picked through those, and then conducted interviews with the help of Don and Dick.

Rick Dacri, on the other hand, was a much more aggressive recruiter. He told the council, on which I still sat for a short few months more, that his plan was to actively seek out talent, even if the potential candidate was currently employed by another municipality and not submitting his or her resume. He said that he would simply call people and work on enticing them to apply. According to Councilor Eric Hebert, working with Rick Dacri would bring a broader spectrum of candidates to the search because Dacri and Associates recruits for more firms than just non-profits or towns. Councilor Hebert felt that perhaps a larger pool of managers might apply as a result (Pritchett, 2014). However, the end result of this search, which cost the city $17,000 in consulting fees paid to Dacri (Betts, 2016), and the hiring of James Chaousis, former town manager of Boothbay, Maine, who was soon discovered to have engaged in paying for his personal oil bill and family cell phone plans with the town of Boothbay’s money (Pearson, 2015). This information was not known publicly at the time of the council’s deciding to follow Dacri’s lead and hire Chaousis, but investigations were beginning and there had been other personnel incidents while Chaousis was employed by Boothbay, which much to the council’s chagrin, citizens began to discover with simple Google searches and phone calls without having to pay a consulting firm tens of thousands of dollars. Chaousis resigned in thirteen months after a drama-filled stint with the city of Rockland (Lawson, 2016).

Once again, the populace of Rockland demanded that the city council employ another means of finding a city manager than hiring a head hunter. In response, the council formed a search committee comprised of a variety of members of the community: an artist, a former councilor and insurance agent, a sitting councilor and carpenter, a small engine and appliance repairman, the fire chief, a city employee from the finance department, and a volunteer member of the Personnel Board who is also a writer. The city council asked that this committee submit two names for their consideration. For some reason still unbeknownst to anyone, the committee submitted only one name: a retired military man, which created a public uproar and once again, citizens were calling former employees on a resume gained by a member of the press, and discovering that perhaps some of the job descriptions were padded (Leon, 2017). Fortunately, this saga seems to have come to an end, through the Human Resources practice of succession planning, somewhat accidentally, and internal promotion. Finance Director Tom Luttrell, who had served several times as interim city manager during the various moments of resignations and upheavals, was asked to apply for the position (he had not initially) and was hired on July 19, 2017 (Aquisito, 2017).

Succession planning is the process of making sure that qualified candidates are in place and ready to assume next-level-up positions in the event of vacancies. According to Mondy (2015), nothing can be more important to the success of an organization than developing and ensuring that a qualified person is available and ready to lead. One never knows when a manager may either have a health condition or a pressing family matter, or resign. Retirement can be planned for, but unplanned vacancies can cause upheaval and as outlined in the situation with Rockland, Maine, expensive recruiting costs that do not necessarily net a long-term manager.

Rockland is not the only city with managerial woes. Three other towns in Maine are engaged in the epic struggle to find a leader (Oxford Hills Sun-Journal, 2017) In Colorado, the town of Silverton having gone through 7 managers in 10 years. An interim manager, Michelle Hamilton, is running the town of 500 year-round residents and many more vacationers, and no advertisement for a full-time permanent manager seems to be in evidence on any of the usual job boards. In Brighton, manager Manuel Esquibel took a hefty severance package after a council investigation of how he ran several municipal projects and his relationship with a former Brighton Economic Development Director turned up some serious ethical and financial concerns (Aguilar, 2017). In Littleton, manager Michael Perry was fired last year in the wake of an investigation of how the police department had handled events leading up to a tragic murder-suicide (Aguilar, 2016). In Basalt, a simple lack of a quorum postponed the conclusion of a “seemingly endless” search for a manager in June (Fayhee, 2017). In Texas, town councils face the same predicament (Maresh, 2016). One might conclude that in every state in our great nation, the search for a city or town manager is being played out on numerous town and county boards, with varying degrees of drama and woe.

Therefore, two questions beg to be raised: what causes this issue, and what can be done about it? As Greg Schulte, outgoing manager of Pagosa Springs says (2017), one of the most important factors in hiring a manager that will stick around a community is to find someone that everyone feels is part of the community, accessible, impartial, and open to all views and opinions. Looking at the choices for manager in Rockland, the managers who have not hung in for the long haul are the ones who have been recruited from outside communities who do not know the dynamics of a small town in which everyone knows everyone else. Additionally, small towns may have even more difficulty finding a manager, because the compensation packages are not as competitive as those in larger towns (Laberge, 2005).

If Mr. Schulte’s other points about why talented managers don’t go into civic duty are taken into consideration, such as the preponderance of long evening meetings, the lack of job stability based on political agendas, and the relatively low pay as compared to other management positions in the business sector, it very well may be that Rockland ended up with managers that either were in the business for the love of the work, or perhaps had come from other communities after a negative experience, and applied in Rockland because Rockland’s increasing desperation to find someone meant that a chance could still be had at a top executive position. At the beginning of the Rockland manager search in 2009, 60 resumes were submitted for the job. During the search in 2016, only 20 resumes were submitted.

Therefore, it would seem that internal recruitment or succession planning would be a very good choice for a small town or city, in order to save money in recruiting costs, and also to have good people ready to go in the event of an opening. However, in contrast to this seemingly affordable and simple solution, by law, resumes from outside the organization do need to be solicited because if a candidate can demonstrate that a job was filled simply by word of mouth, this could be viewed by the law as a discriminatory practice biased toward currently employed workers, or if the hiring results in a gender, race, sexual orientation, or age bias (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2017). It very well could be, too, that a town might be accused of being an “old boy network” if internal candidates are chosen over other candidates who have as many valid qualifications. Fortunately in the case with Rockland, the community is so relieved to be done with searching for a manager that no one appears to be at all disgruntled and everyone seems satisfied that the best choice of a qualified candidate was made.

Another suggestion to find someone who fits in well and has experience dealing with municipal issues might be to leave job descriptions more open-ended. I think of my previous example of Mayor Strimling, who has spent his professional career in education and non-profit and political campaign management. He does not possess an MBA or the requisite five years progressive experience in municipal management that the town of South Fork, Colorado: Population, 365 in 2016, down from 604 in 2010 (South Fork Visitor Information, 2017) seems to want in their next manager.

Another helpful suggestion might be to use publications put out by your state’s town and city management association. In the case of Colorado, the Colorado City and County Management Association has a very good handbook called “How to Hire a Local Government Administrator” (Hughes, Dority, & Unfug, 2013). It may seem like a somewhat condescending sort of suggestion to read a set of instructions; however, in reading through this booklet I soon discovered that there were many good suggestions that my board did not follow in the hiring process. For example, many boards have knee-jerk reactions to hiring, once a manager departs. I have heard it said at meetings that “we don’t want someone like him again.” This kind of thinking is what caused the pendulum swing from a collaborative, consensus-style manager to an authoritarian, dictatorial manager. Rather, a better plan would have been to have a plan: as the CCCMA booklet states, it is important to sit down as a group and decide on a strategic plan with goals before deciding on what kind of manager the organization could use (Hughes, Dority, & Unfug, 2013, Chapter 2). For example, if your town or city has a lot of public infrastructure projects coming up and you do not have a city engineer on staff, you will need a manager who is capable of interfacing with contractors hired to do engineering work and who understands the nature of the work in more depth than if there were professional staff at the city. Or, if you town requires someone who really understands grant-writing, because you do not have a very strong Community Development Department, these needs should be outlined in your search criteria. Do you have personnel issues in your staff, but no HR department? Then you will need a manager with strong HR skills and the ability to demonstrate a clear ability with interpersonal problem-solving. If your town is rural, you probably want someone with rural experience.

Once your search committee decides on the criteria for the manager and the needs of the community, it’s time to decide on whether to hire an outside firm to help, and if so, how much help to hire, whether to have the whole process handled by the firm, or just parts and pieces in collaboration with the search committee. This will depend on your internal resources as a community and how much experience your search committee has with hiring a top executive. One aspect that my search committee did not do a good job with, at all, is outlined in the CCCMA handbook. We did hire outside firms, but we did not investigate these firm’s success rates. We also did not ask for a guarantee of return services should our finalist not last beyond one or two years (Hughes, Dority, & Unfug, 2013, Chapter 2, p. 5). We also really could have used a much better system of evaluation and review, once our finalist was hired and in place. We didn’t document issues as outlined in Mondy (2015), nor did we document goals achievement or improvement potential. Our evaluation forms were generally a 1-5 on some very broad topics, and any low ratings were hard to justify because they were not documented, and therefore always caused discord with the manager.

As far as determining past experience, the University of Wisconsin Extension Program lays out one possible path. For example, experience of 5 to 7 years in a similar governmental position is a common requirement, and career progression could be viewed in this way: an Assistant City Manager in a city of 20,000 is probably ready to be a City Manager in a city of 8,000 to 10,000 residents. Similarly, an assistant manager moving from an urban community of a larger population to a smaller community could be a good fit (Probst, 2016).

I don’t neccesarily agree with this thinking, though I do believe it’s a good guideline. The problem as I see it is that it puts people into a box. It may very well be that an assistant manager has specialized experience in one area that a city really needs, but that individual may not meet the criteria of years of experience or size of community. It’s important to look at candidates as individuals.

Another really important aspect is the screening process for candidates. Often in the manager search process in Rockland, citizens found information about a candidate on Google that should have previously been discovered by the firm hired to do background checks. It’s important to know how your firm is doing background checks, if they are potentially discriminatory, and if they are turning up the right information before your public gets out there and starts making phone calls, which can be more than unsettling to both the town and to the candidate, as well as potentially put the town at risk for lawsuit (Evertsen, 2015). Evertsen also suggests watching out for candidates who have worked in many cities or towns. I would add that it might be a good idea to watch out for candidates who seem to be applying absolutely everywhere, though care is needed here to not discriminate. If someone is putting in resumes all over the country, then they may not have the passion and sense of place needed to truly love your community.

It doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it, but it is.

Given that town and city management is generally accomplished by elected boards, situations can quickly become personal or political due to lack of training of well-meaning residents who want to serve their community. It’s important to make sure that councils and boards get training on HR practices if they are about to be functioning as the HR department. Many municipal organizations offer such trainings for a low cost to towns and cities, such as the Maine Municipal Association’s various offerings throughout the year (MMA, 2017). Municipal associations can also put towns in contact with consultants who can provide a specialized workshop specifically tailored to a board’s educational needs.

It’s important for councils and boards to put together goal rubrics and strategic plans concerning their towns in order to know who to look for in terms of expertise when hiring a manager. Cities and towns should employ the same kinds of organizational strategic plans and resources that are used in the world of business, such as organizational charts, and the analysis of what kinds of HR resources are needed in order to create a successful management structure. If a manager is hired that presents an HR issue, or if a manager has an HR issue with a member of staff, it’s important for the board to know what their role is, and how to play a part in solving the problem in the parameters of whatever the city incorporating documents may say about the role of the board. For example, in Rockland, the manager is the HR department, period, for all the employees. The council cannot, according to charter, interfere with personnel matters to do with city staff except those decisions that involve the manager, the clerk, and the attorney (City of Rockland Charter, 1983).

Boards should also carefully consider the involvement of the community in the process, as much as allowable by law, in order to head off at the pass any Googling and exposes of candidates presented at council meetings. Careful consideration should be made to hold public meetings in which the community can give feedback on what they’d like to see done in the community- perhaps not so much personal aspects of the manager they would like to see, but rather, the style of manager they’d like. Lastly, it’s very important to make sure that the new manager is a part of the community and someone who does not polarize residents by taking one particular stand or another on social or political agendas.

If professional help is to be employed, it is also important for the board to interface with the community in order to make sure that the community is not resentful about the expense, and understands the scope of the work involved and the reason for the expense. It’s important for the board to have measurable criteria in place to make sure that any hired consultants are executing according to goals and plans, and that there are guarantees should the work not be up to par or the finalist not retained successfully for a specific period of time agreed on by the board and the consultants.

Lastly, any board working together to find a new manager needs to work together well, first. Trainings should be considered if members of the board do not work well together, or do not mesh on projected goals, and in some instances, outside moderators may be needed.

Hopefully, with any luck and a lot of hard work and training, a good manager will be found who stays in a community a long time. Rockland perhaps has finally found that person, through a very long and circuitous process. In order for towns to improve their Human Resources process, it is very important for hiring committees and town or city councils to obtain HR training, to make sure they know what kind of manager they need, and that they know who they are hiring before making the decision. Outside headhunters or consultants can be hired, but ultimately the board that must work with the manager should gain the skill and the knowledge to understand what their job is. As the manager will ultimately be the HR department in most towns, with the council as the oversight committee of the manager, this kind of HR experience on a council is crucial, whether it be some combination of the councilors obtaining training, or a consultant working with the council, and close management of public involvement and perception of the process, or some of all of the above options.

References:

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Evertsen, David. (2015, December 7). Executive Recruiting: the Do’s and Don’ts of hiring a new City/Town Manager. Retrieved June 17, 2017 from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/executive-recruiting-dos-donts-hiring-new-city-town-manager-evertsen

Maine Municipal Association. (2017, n.d.). Trainings and Workshops. Retrieved July 23, 2017 from https://www.memun.org/Training-Resources/Workshops-Training/Training-Resources-View/ArticleId/6417/MMAs-Local-Planning-Boards-and-Boards-of-Appeals-sponsored-by-the-Maine-Municipal-Association-7-25-17

City of Rockland Charter. (1983, n.d.). Article IV, Powers and Duties of the Council, In Section 204. Retrieved 2017, July 1, from http://www.ci.rockland.me.us/vertical/sites/%7BDE9EDD66-EFF4-4A6B-8A58-AA91254C1584%7D/uploads/CHARTER.pdf

 

 

Too much red tape or doing the best with what we are given?

In the book High Performing Nonprofit Organizations, it is stated that “Nonprofit managers are forced to manage upstream, as it were, against the conventions, attitudeds, and behaviors of their sector. These dynamics should trouble anyone who believes that smart, well-managed organizations are critical to managing social missions” (Letts, Ryan, & Grossman, 1999, page 30).

According to the National Council of Nonprofits (2018), if the nonprofit sector were a country, it would have the sixteenth largest economy in the world. In the United States, the nonprofit sector contributed 878 billion to the economy in 2012, or about 5.4 percent of our nation’s GDP. Interestingly, data compiled in 2014 shows that the nonprofit sector contributed an estimated $937.7 billion to the US economy, or 5.4% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Taken at that face value, it becomes easier to see why we should be concerned about the general public attitude toward nonprofits. Taking things a step further, we can also acknowledge that nonprofits, and their legions of volunteers, do work that would otherwise cost the taxpayer many dollars. One breathes a little easier.

But then there is the fact that all government entities are also classified as nonprofits, in the category of public sector organizations. Many people have an issue with their tax dollars going to support policy decisions with which we may or may not personally agree, but are decided in the public spirit of democracy, if one can count voter turnout in the range of 58-59% as democracy (Desilver, 2017).

The general public has probably always been somewhat skeptical at best toward government since the idea was first hashed out. However, we seem to live in a time when the general perception of the average American- whether you be of the Grover Norquist school of wanting to get government down to a size small enough where it can be drowned in a bathtub, or whether you be a backwoods latter day hippie living in the woods of Colorado- is that governmental institutions do nothing but bad, politicians are evil, and the whole mess is to be avoided. This attitude, coupled with a profound lack of worthy intellectual debate on the issues amongst the general populace, is in my opinion creating a self-perpetuating cycle in which government does truly become less and less effective, because public support for government, both financially and in spirit, continues to diminish.

We should probably think for a moment that government, as an institution, should be tax exempt, because if it were not, it would be a case of double taxing. Our tax dollars support the building of roads and bridges, the schooling of our children, and a plethora of other services that would mean the end of civilization if they ceased. It doesn’t make sense to tax these services, because taxes paid for them in the first place.

Be that as it may, the idea that government would work better if it were “run like a business” and there were “less red tape” is no new concept. It’s just that we live in historic times of very poor public opinion toward government, because we as a nation seem to have sunk to a very low common denominator indeed in terms of what politicians and policy makers we’ve managed to put in office. Some of this is a function of electoral procedures with unintended consequences. For example, in Maine, extremist governor Paul LePage has managed, for two terms, to get himself elected without a majority vote simply because the vote was split three ways. Maine has a very strong tradition of Independent candidates, as they are called, and they always split the vote between the Democrats and the Republicans. Several attempts have been made to legislate runoff elections, not the least of which was a massive petition drive by the people of the state to create a mandate: which the legislature has recently figured out how to overturn. Maine’s voters supported runoff elections as a ballot question in the last election (Seelye, 2016) but then the legislature held up the process, and now it is indefinitely stalled, though citizens across the state are fighting back with still another petition (Mistler, 2017).

Governor LePage hasn’t done much for public perception of the effectiveness of government, considering that he vetoes absolutely every piece of legislation brought before him and the entire state is currently being run either by citizen ballot initiatives or the departmental administrators he hasn’t managed to fire. Most of the slack of the running the state is being taken up by county and local government, but the problem with this situation is that Maine has a somewhat archaic revenue sharing formula in which local excise and sales taxes are passed up to the state for redistribution, and the legislature long before Governor LePage figured out how to raid that fund to meet the requirement that Maine’s budget be balanced every year, though the governor has raided it much harder in recent years than was done previously. As a result, Maine’s infrastructure continues to crumble, schools remain without needed funding, and jobs creation or retraining for the unemployed languishes. All of which means that currently, 18 people are running for governor, many of whom seem to have absolutely no policy experience but who are motivated by the current vacuum of experienced or effective leadership. This trend seems to be prevalent in all areas of government: no longer does it seem necessary for politicians to actually know anything about policy or how to run a public sector organization or even one thing about diplomacy or administration. We live in a world where Oprah Winfrey is the answer to Donald Trump. Oprah may know quite a lot about making money through popular media, but what does she know about creating economic stimulus plans? Does she know one thing about constitutional law? Is our government now going to be run in the backdrops by administrators who serve a celebrity figurehead, and who come and go on the whim of a leader who is more used to conducting business on Twitter than in serious and substantive diplomatic session?

All of this, in my opinion, leads to a very poor public perception of the effectiveness of the federal government, and in many states, of the state government. It will be interesting to study and watch how local governments fill the void created by lack of effective policies at the top: though the way in which local governments are effective state by state will depend on how that state’s taxation system works.

Aside from the more drastic recent events that have led to an increased public perception of the ineffectiveness of government, most of us have encountered times when “red tape” held up a process. When I was first elected to city council in my hometown, I was continually frustrated by not being able to pass amendments to the city ordinances that to my mind made life much easier. Even more frustrating were times when my own public would become upset with me because I “moved with such speed and alacrity,” as one resident put it. I had a long conversation with the director of the solid waste transfer station, and he told me that most people don’t like change. He said that I had to learn how to account for people’s need for gradual change, and that government should function slowly and carefully in order to both accommodate everyone’s need for comfortable change and also to ensure that laws don’t get passed too quickly without substantive vetting. Sometimes, there can be an unintended consequence to a law, and it takes time to work through a law and all its potential ramifications.

This somewhat lofty discussion helped me to understand that from a larger perspective, speed is not always a good thing, but, there are still plenty of times in which it is clear to me that “red tape” does in fact hold up effective solutions. The one example that springs to mind right now is a situation where dozens of people have tried mightily to get a state’s animal control office to do something about a woman who is neglecting many horses, but the state continues to maintain that there is nothing wrong. In my view, the state animal control department doesn’t have the resources to seize and feed 20 horses, so they are staying in a state of denial about what is really going on. In other experiences, we’ve all encountered times when government offices haven’t modernized to the point that business may have: clunky forms may need to be filled out instead of an online portal, or, perhaps the online portal is inaccessible to a low-income individual without a computer or transportation to the library.

However, the point of government is to provide services, not make money. But that said, all organizations have to provide a quality of work that is cost-effective and gets a job done efficiently and well. High Performing Nonprofit Organizations (1999) analyzes capacity building of service-providing organizations as a means to gauge delivery of services. Capacity building is not an easily-defined concept. How do we know when a governmental agency is delivering effective services in the most cost effective way possible, in light of all the roadblocks thrown in front of that agency? For example, property taxes or in some cases sales taxes pay in most part for public education. Through formulas of redistribution particular to every state, schools are funded. Wouldn’t it then stand to reason that all schools should roughly be on the same playing field? Why, then, do rural schools struggle so hard to meet budgets? I suspect that school boards in rural districts could sit down all day long and analyze their capacity building operations, but the basic and raw fact is that they simply need more money invested in their programs. And even before that money was invested, there should have been real muscle put into early childhood programs and support to families with children.

The case of Letts, Ryan and Grossman, made in 1999, that a nonprofit manager is forced to manage upstream- is quite valid in light of the fact that we get what we get. The public votes in the policy makers that we get. The high school students that arrive on the bus in the morning are the students we get. The budget to fix the road is the budget we get. Taken on the value of that statement, running any kind of public sector or nonprofit organization becomes a somewhat miraculous endeavor if at the end of the day, anything gets done.

 

 

Letts, C., Ryan, W., & Grossman, A., (1999). High Performing Nonprofit Organizations: Managing Upstream for Greater Impact. New York. John Wiley & Sons.

 

National Council of Nonprofits. (2018, n.d.). America’s Nonprofits: Economic Impact. Retrieved January 31, 2017 from https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/economic-impact

 

 

Desilver, Drew. (2017, May 15). U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout. In Pew Research Center. Retrieved January 30, 2017 from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/15/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/

 

Seelye, Katharine. (2016, December 3). Maine Adopts Ranked-Choice Voting. What Is It, and How Will It Work? In the New York Times. Retrieved January 31, 3017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/03/us/maine-ranked-choice-voting.html

 

Mistler, Steve. (2017, October 25). Lawmakers Agree to Delay- and Maybe Repeal- Maine’s Voter Approved Ranked Choice Voting Law. In Maine Public Radio. Retrieved February 1, 2017 from http://mainepublic.org/post/lawmakers-agree-delay-and-maybe-repeal-maines-voter-approved-ranked-choice-voting-law#stream/0

 

Of horse hotels, fracking, corporate campaign finance and political ineptitude

When I moved to Colorado in December of 2014, I traveled across country with my five horses and one dachshund. We stopped along the way at “Horse Hotels,” which was a phenomenon I knew nothing about until needing to stay somewhere with five horses- the other option is crashing at closed fair grounds. I liked the horse hotels, because they are run by the people who own the farms, and I got to know a lot about the local communities where I stayed as a result. Sometimes, I could stay with the horses at the farm, or other times if they didn’t have “room at the inn,” I’d stay at a motel nearby.

I stayed one night in Pennsylvania and couldn’t stay at the farm, so, upon unloading after a very long, inclement day, wandered into the motel dining room and bar looking for grub and warmth. The town was really not even a whistle-stop, near the Elk ski area. A few guys looked pretty well-installed at the bar, and the décor suggested a time somewhere in the late 70s. Everyone looked pretty tired, though I found out that they were extremely friendly, and very curious about me and my doings. Before I knew what was going on, I’d discovered that the motel was managed and run by a husband and wife team who, within the space of a half hour, discovered that I was involved in policy and as a result, they wanted to discuss fracking with me.

In Kraft and Furlong (2015), there is a picture of a modular home with a giant fracking refinery behind it. This is the exact scenario that my hosts feared. In the time that fracking had come to Pennsylvania, they had seen lives and farms destroyed as a result. However, the economy of the Susquehanna Valley didn’t really offer too many prospects for folks. I sat with them at a table covered with a red checkered cloth and sucked down a few Buds while they talked to me about their hopes and fears.

The next morning, I took a short jaunt around the area before picking up the horses, and thought about the prospects facing the clearly economically depressed area in which I now found myself. I wondered what on earth folks did to hold life and limb together, and I could see how a fracking outfit with promises of jobs and an economic future for the region could manage to gain some support. On the flip side, if you do a quick Google search for a map of fracking mines in Pennsylvania (DEP, 2011), you will discover that in the Susquehanna Valley as of 2011, there were 1,079 wells and 795 environmental violations. If you continue digging through the map of fracking sites website, you can click on the reasons for the violations by county. For example, if you dig into what has been going on in the Susquehanna Valley, you will discover that many of those violations were for failing to prevent pollution or failing to store or dispose of pollutants in a safe manner.

I had just that past fall managed to get myself in a real tangle with my own political party, because I didn’t want to support our energy omnibus bill. I had a portion of some legislation bundled into the bill that I desperately wanted to see come to pass: the ability for towns and municipalities to own and control their own lighting infrastructure rather than being forced into leasing from Central Maine Power, which would give local governments the ability to switch to energy efficient LED lighting and save hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. But the bill had been bundled into the omnibus, and I couldn’t support, because the omnibus contained a subsidy to industry to build gas pipeline in Maine in order to facilitate transport of fracked gas. Diane Russell, who is now running for governor of Maine- along with about 18 other candidates- gave an impassioned speech one morning at caucus because she wanted to be sure that we would all vote in support of the omnibus, and like the good politician we all were, she stood on her soapbox for some time pounding her chest about the fate of single mothers and poor people everywhere, and how the omnibus would make energy more affordable for the proverbial folks who are choosing between food, medicine, and heat. If I sound cynical, I am. And then, in her next paragraph, she asked us to please downplay the gas subsidy part of the energy bill, because her opponent in the upcoming election was a Green Party candidate who was sure to drag her over the coals. Or shale.

I drove around for about a half hour, in the grim freezing rain, thinking about my conversation at the motel the night before. My hosts were desperate for economic relief, but they knew people who had either contaminated drinking water as a result of fracking, or who had to leave their farms when the gas companies wanted their land. They truly and literally were between a rock and a hard place.

Pennsylvania is a wet, rainy state, with plenty of rainfall, but now, in some areas of the state, water drives take place to bring clean drinking water to residents as a result of their own wells being contaminated by the effects of fracking (Jameel, 2016). In America, this is really happening. Fracking came to Pennsylvania before there were any frameworks in place for measuring potential health or environmental impact. The gas industry contributes substantial money to lobbying efforts and political campaigns (Common Cause PA, 2016). Total contributions from 2007-2015 were $8,839,930, with total lobbying costs in the same period coming in at $55,866,620.

Here in Colorado, we’ve all heard how Governor Hickenlooper drank fracking fluid provided for him by Halliburton CEO Dave Lesar (Proctor, 2013). This article describes how the governor described his public relations stunt as an effort to show that the environmental and business community could work together. The article also relates that the law changed in Colorado in February 2016 so that the distance between wells and homes or other buildings had to be at least 500 feet apart- a fact that would give me cold comfort indeed, given the size of fracking mines and the distance that underground or above ground contaminants travel. Fortunately I won’t have to refuse to vote for the top of my own party’s state ticket at some point, as Colorado has term limits. Governor Hickenlooper also recently swilled down some Animas River water, in an attempt to show that 3 million gallons of contaminated water can’t all be wrong.

Sitting writing this morning in the endless blue of a Colorado sky, my thoughts are still with the people back in the grim freezing rain, and I wonder if we will manage as a nation to get corporate money out of politics and focus on long-term health and safety issues from a place of real reform. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we are playing Russian Roulette with our energy policies, and that until stiffen our resolve as a people to do something substantive about our energy consumption and generation, no real change will occur. Finding the next short-term solution that will eventually become a problem is not the solution.

References

 

Kraft, M. E., & Furlong, S. R. (2015). In Public Policy: Politics, Analysis, and Alternatives (5th ed.). Environment and Energy Policy. Los Angeles: SAGE/CQ Press.

 

Amico, Chris; DeBelius, Danny; Detrow, Scott; Stiles, Matt. (2011, n.d.). Pennsylvania counties with active wells. In State Impact, NPR. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/drilling/counties/

 

Jameel, Maryam. (2016, June 23). Rural Pennsylvanians say “Fracking just ruined everything.” In HuffPost. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pennsylvania-fracking-water_us_576b7a76e4b0c0252e786d5e

 

Common Cause PA. (2016, June 20). MarcellusMoney.org Report Shows Gas Industry

Contributions to PA Officials Remain Steady. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from http://marcellusmoney.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/FINAL-Marcellus-Money-PR-6-20-16-AS-DISTRIBUTED.pdf?189db0

 

Proctor, Cathy. (2013, September 10). Hickenlooper provides new details on drinking Halliburton’s frack fluid. In Denver Business Journal. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.bizjournals.com/denver/blog/earth_to_power/2013/09/hickenlooper-offers-new-details-on.html

 

 

Agenda 21, the BP Oil Spill, and have we learned anything constructive in the face of the Keystone spill?

 

I must need a little wry humor in my life this evening. I’m reading Chapter 11, Environment and Energy Policy, in Kraft and Furlong (2015), and lo and behold, there is a discussion of Agenda 21 on page 384. Agenda 21 was a plan of action developed at the 1992 United Nations (UN) Conference on Environment and Development, otherwise known as the Earth Summit. With 179 nations participating, the plan called for addressing environmental issues and impacts with sustainable development, which was a pretty new concept at that time, unless you happened to be Helen and Scott Nearing, or any of the other back to the landers throughout the 1970s who washed up on the shores of the coast of Maine or other remote locations around the country. The difference between Agenda 21 and remote backwoods Maine hippie farmers was that now, on the global stage, world leaders were acknowledging that the very way we built and lived upon the earth was causing the demise of our home planet. Now, concepts like sprawl and global warming were being linked in the mainstream media, not just something that Birkenstock-wearing single moms knew about, and were attempting to avoid by walking everywhere and recycling everything.

I got my start in politics fighting against sprawl, Super Wal-Mart to be specific, and I knew in my soul that communities that were walkable and centralized meant that kids could ride their bikes to play with friends and to go to school, cutting down on childhood obesity. It meant less pollution. Friendlier and more efficient living spaces. It meant that the communities that kept business local would both retain investment dollars in the community, and maintain their own special and unique character, making them more attractive to new residents and new business. My first effective campaign slogan was “A Sense of Place.” And I won.

But, between 2009-2011, sitting at my desk in council chambers, imagine my complete bafflement when a resident arrived at public comment and began comparing the work I was doing with a communist plot to control and contain people. I was sitting there thinking, wait, I’m trying to figure out how to get grant money so that we can create more efficient traffic flows and more green spaces, and he thinks I’m doing WHAT? However, the protestor was fairly powerful in his arguments with some sectors, and it was just about at the time when the Tea Party movement was taking shape.

I was at that time a member of a planning coalition called Gateway One, which was a collection of about 20 towns along the coast of Maine, and hundreds of people who spent years hammering out a plan to transition the coast of Maine to a sustainable transportation plan as opposed to simply reacting in a knee-jerk way to the increasing pressures of tourism and increased road travel as a result. The plan took into account zoning considerations for nodal development, which would centralize services and residences, and leave green corridors in place for farming or recreation. The plan was in tiers: so the first tier was the stuff we could actually get done, such as number of curb cuts, traffic intersections, zoning for commercial businesses, and the like. The tiers, or categories, increased in order of complexity, so that nodal transport and development was really in tier 3, meaning it would be many years before the political or social will would be in place to implement, considering some of the changes were viewed as taking away property rights from some landholders, such as decreased lot size requirements or areas that might not be developed – but by someone at sometime in the future. However, in no way shape or form was it ever suggested that land would be taken away from landowners, or that existing uses changed. Tier 3 was more of a “nice to have” category, sort of like, if this land ever does come into the public domain, perhaps a grant might become available to put it into land conservation. However, tier 3 instantly triggered loss of freedom and land rights. And it was that aspect that some found to be socialist-leaning (Weinand, 2010). I could never truly convince this group in all seriousness that the Gateway One plan NEVER proposed to take away landowner rights. Ever. They just wouldn’t believe me.

I didn’t even really know what Agenda 21 was, until I had to research it after Mr. Cowan’s continued presence. I knew about the Earth Summit. All I really knew was that I was trying to do something good to cut down on traffic congestion, increase the overall happiness and well-being of my constituents, and increase the efficiency and liveable qualities of my community. Imagine my surprise, then, when anti-UN folks from all corners of Maine turned out to speak against what we were doing. The odd thing about it was that it was the only time that an opposing group was somewhat gentle with me- they loved the fact that I raised my own food and had chickens and goats, and they just figured that I didn’t realize the evil that I committed. If you read the article I cite, so much is said.  (Curtis, 2011).

 

In discussing my own experience, I am not so much talking about myself as bringing up a very real consideration of political life that few people realize. People seem to think that politicians are just by nature duplicitous, or with an ax to grind, and maybe that’s true in some cases, but there I was just trying to do the right thing and look what happened. I didn’t even know that a bunch of people thought I was a communist and were saying so in the media until a local reporter walked up and said, “Greetings, Comrade,” with a twinkle in his eye.

In the midst of all of this, the Deepwater Horizon was pumping out oil into the Gulf of Mexico. I can’t find it online now, but at the time, there was a website that you could go to that showed the gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf by the minute. In fact, I would often sit at city council meetings with that website open, watching the ticker go up- while listening to citizens like Ted Cowan decry any attempt that policy makers made to make one little small change in JUST the way we built roads and accommodated increased traffic in Maine.

The BP blowout went on for 87 days, and spilled 2 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone wanted someone to do something, but nothing was done. And this is why I discuss the example of Gateway One: a coalition of well-meaning towns and policy makers, setting effective standards for sensible transportation policy, suddenly nixed by a group who feels that their rights may at some point be infringed upon- and no matter how Gothic their claims, the next governor of the State of Maine was sympathetic and nixed all funding for the project. If we couldn’t get Gateway One in place, which would have cut down vehicular trips substantially without infringing on personal transportation “freedoms”- and in fact, would have made vehicular transport much more enjoyable due to sensible traffic planning that cut down on congestion- how in the world are we supposed to do anything substantive about millions of gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, after the fact? If we can’t get one small proactive change made, how can we set policy retroactively, in reaction to global catastrophe?

Well- I think we can. Maybe that’s not as emphatic a statement as Barack Obama made when he said, “Yes, we can,” but, maybe I’m a bit more like the Little Train that Could. I don’t believe that there can be one politician on the planet that has not had to plow his or her way through the most unbelievable public opposition to a good idea, armed with Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations, with his or her policy wonks flanking the podium. Just watch Elizabeth Warren in action sometime. She has a team that rivals a rap artist’s entourage.

The fact is, the public is always going to have concerns about new ideas or change, maybe for the right or maybe for the wrong reasons. Human beings just aren’t programmed to feel comfortable with change. And human beings elect congress. If we could get some more human beings to participate in that exercise, it would be wonderful, but in the meantime, this is what we have. On top of this handicap, we have a nation that is essentially governed by big business lobby, such as BP. For example, if you go to the website Open Secrets, you will discover that BP, or British Petroleum, has spent $117,042,984 in lobbying since 1998 and made $8,083,633 in campaign contributions since 1990 (Open Secrets, 2017).

Answering the question, “should the government do more or less” in the face of a global environmental crisis such as an oil spill, which was caused by a corporate entity, begins at the moment when one ascertains that the corporate entity in question is making campaign contributions, at all. In 2010, the landmark opinion was given by the Supreme Court known as Citizens United striking down restrictions on corporations or unions making campaign contributions from their own finances (Wermiel, 2012). For example, the number above given for BP campaign contributions would have had to have been mostly washed through various Political Action Committees or used for advertising as opposed to given directly- and it’s not clear from the Open Secrets website how that could have worked, nor is it worth worrying about at this moment, in concept. What is worth worrying about how the level of campaign contributions may be increasing as a result of Citizens United, and the fact that when major corporations are contributing to campaign coffers, it becomes very difficult for the politicians to do anything constructive about implementing environmental or sustainable energy policy, because clearly, now there is a vested interest in the new personhood of the corporation.

Interestingly, the means that President Obama often outflanked the lack of political will amongst congressional delegates on the corporate take is the same method – sort of- used by President Trump. Obama used rulemaking in the case of environmental policy, using the breadth of the EPA administrative capability to get things done independently of needing a congressional vote (Kraft, 2015, p. 382). This is no new tactic. All policy has to go to some administering body to be turned into a set of rules, and many such bodies as the EPA have jurisdictional powers to cause things to be independent of a congressional debate. In Maine, no surprise, one of the first actions Governor LePage undertook was the dismantling of two standing committees- Labor and Economics- and the re-forming of the two committees into one less-powerful committee. He then moved on to Natural Resources and Agriculture. No fool, he knew the real power was in the pens of the administrators, who he quickly set about firing.

President Trump accomplishes much of the same thing with his executive orders: and one of his first orders was to rescind enacting legislation blocking the Dakota Access pipeline in South Dakota, since the timeline before redaction was impossible had not been crossed upon his taking office (Meyer, 2017).

But meanwhile, here we are, with the sister pipeline to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Keystone XL, spilling over 200,000 gallons of crude in South Dakota.

So what should we do? If we’ve learned any lesson at all from the Deepwater Horizon Spill in 2010, it’s not clear. Since then, we’ve made it possible for corporations to give from their own finances to political campaigns, since according to the Supreme Court, corporations are an entity, and therefore protected as a person under the First Amendment. Since then, we’ve seen corporations continue to strengthen their grip on Congress. We’ve exited the Paris accords, and our current administration has loosened every environmental step in the right direction possible in as sort a time as possible, with absolutely no consideration of sustainable development or sustainable energy policy.

However, do I think that there is hope? Yes. I am not exactly sure why. Considering that I began this exploration of the inability of government to do anything substantive about energy policy with a rather quaint accounting of public outcry over a possible communist conspiracy, and I finished up by blasting our corporate-controlled government, one might wonder why I still have hope. I do, though, and here’s what I think should be done.

First of all, we need to re-invest in education. The people of our nation are on a whole less educated than in the past, and continue to lose interest in current events. Most high school students will know absolutely nothing about Net Neutrality until I show up on Monday morning. But this is the exact way that they are being blocked from any substantive or critical debate. They need to read, and think, and have time to contemplate and argue. And they aren’t given this time or space. What we call education contains, sadly, more form than function.

Second, we need to get corporate money out of politics. Corporations have absolutely no business giving money to political candidates. They aren’t people, and they shouldn’t have First Amendment rights as people. An entity and a person are not the same thing.

Third, we need to invest in sustainable infrastructure and energy policy. Fracking is not the solution: it’s just a quick-fix that is easier for oil companies to re-tool into, as the technology is similar, as opposed to manufacturing solar arrays.

Fourth, we need to invest in higher education once again that creates opportunity for people to fill the skilled jobs gap, which according to the tech club, Skills USA, a chapter of which I just started runng down here in Pagosa for the kids, 600,000 jobs right now are going unfilled due to the skills gap, and by 2020, 10 million new skilled workers will be needed (Skills USA, 2017).

If we were to follow these four steps, eventually we would see the train of environmental and energy policy disaster slow down. It’s not a quick fix. However, educating the people and taking the power away from those who stand to profit and putting it back in the hands of the people is the true sustainable answer.

References

 

Kraft, M. E., & Furlong, S. R. (2015). In Public Policy: Politics, Analysis, and Alternatives (5th ed.). Environment and Energy Policy. Los Angeles: SAGE/CQ Press.

 

Weinand, Gerald. (2010, November 24). The Right Side of UN Agenda 21 in Maine. In the Daily Kos. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2010/11/24/923232/-

 

 

Curtis, Abigail. (2011, March 3). State suspends midcoast road plan seen by some as ‘global conspiracy’. In The Bangor Daily News. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from http://bangordailynews.com/2011/03/02/news/gateway-1-planning-process-suspended-by-state/

 

Open Secrets. (2017, n.d.). BP, Profile for All Election Cycles. In Open Secrets. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/summary.php?id=D000000091&cycle=A

 

Wermiel, Stephen. (2012, May 18). SCOTUS for law students: A campaign finance face-off. In SCOTUS blog. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from http://www.scotusblog.com/2012/05/scotus-for-law-students-a-campaign-finance-face-off-sponsored-by-bloomberg-law/

 

Meyer, Robinson. (2017, January 24). Trump’s Dakota Access Pipeline Memo: What we know right now. In The Atlantic. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/trumps-dakota-access-pipeline-memo-what-we-know-right-now/514271/

 

Meyer, Robinson. (2017, November 16). 200,000 gallons of oil spill from the Keystone Pipeline. In The Atlantic. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/11/200000-gallons-of-oil-spill-from-the-keystone-pipeline/546158/

 

Skills USA. (2017, n.d.). The Skilled Jobs Gap. In Skills USA. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.skillsusa.org/about/why-career-technical-education/stem-and-cte-alignment/u-s-skills-gap/

 

I must need a little wry humor in my life this evening. I’m reading Chapter 11, Environment and Energy Policy, in Kraft and Furlong (2015), and lo and behold, there is a discussion of Agenda 21 on page 384. Agenda 21 was a plan of action developed at the 1992 United Nations (UN) Conference on Environment and Development, otherwise known as the Earth Summit. With 179 nations participating, the plan called for addressing environmental issues and impacts with sustainable development, which was a pretty new concept at that time, unless you happened to be Helen and Scott Nearing, or any of the other back to the landers throughout the 1970s who washed up on the shores of the coast of Maine or other remote locations around the country. The difference between Agenda 21 and remote backwoods Maine hippie farmers was that now, on the global stage, world leaders were acknowledging that the very way we built and lived upon the earth was causing the demise of our home planet. Now, concepts like sprawl and global warming were being linked in the mainstream media, not just something that Birkenstock-wearing single moms knew about, and were attempting to avoid by walking everywhere and recycling everything.

I got my start in politics fighting against sprawl, Super Wal-Mart to be specific, and I knew in my soul that communities that were walkable and centralized meant that kids could ride their bikes to play with friends and to go to school, cutting down on childhood obesity. It meant less pollution. Friendlier and more efficient living spaces. It meant that the communities that kept business local would both retain investment dollars in the community, and maintain their own special and unique character, making them more attractive to new residents and new business. My first effective campaign slogan was “A Sense of Place.” And I won.

But, between 2009-2011, sitting at my desk in council chambers, imagine my complete bafflement when one Horatio Cowan arrived at public comment and began comparing the work I was doing with a communist plot to control and contain people. I was sitting there thinking, wait, I’m trying to figure out how to get grant money so that we can create more efficient traffic flows and more green spaces, and he thinks I’m doing WHAT? However, Mr. Cowan was fairly powerful in his arguments with some sectors, and it was just about at the time when the Tea Party movement was taking shape.

I was at that time a member of a planning coalition called Gateway One, which was a collection of about 20 towns along the coast of Maine, and hundreds of people who spent years hammering out a plan to transition the coast of Maine to a sustainable transportation plan as opposed to simply reacting in a knee-jerk way to the increasing pressures of tourism and increased road travel as a result. The plan took into account zoning considerations for nodal development, which would centralize services and residences, and leave green corridors in place for farming or recreation. The plan was in tiers: so the first tier was the stuff we could actually get done, such as number of curb cuts, traffic intersections, zoning for commercial businesses, and the like. The tiers, or categories, increased in order of complexity, so that nodal transport and development was really in tier 3, meaning it would be many years before the political or social will would be in place to implement, considering some of the changes were viewed as taking away property rights from some landholders, such as decreased lot size requirements or areas that might not be developed – but by someone at sometime in the future. However, in no way shape or form was it ever suggested that land would be taken away from landowners, or that existing uses changed. Tier 3 was more of a “nice to have” category, sort of like, if this land ever does come into the public domain, perhaps a grant might become available to put it into land conservation. However, tier 3 instantly triggered loss of freedom and land rights. And it was that aspect that Mr. Cowan found to be socialist-leaning (Weinand, 2010). I had to put an image in this paper of Jarrod LeBlanc of Maine Web News, at this moment, because when I first saw this newscast, I couldn’t believe it- from the bad suit to the spinning fake globe in the background. But, the citizens did, in fact, have a valid and real concern: property rights and the rights of landowners. And even though I might make light of Jarrod’s leisure suit, I could never truly convince this group in all seriousness that the Gateway One plan NEVER proposed to take away landowner rights. Ever. They just wouldn’t believe me. Here’s Jarrod. He came to a Gateway One meeting once, and broadcast live. And ate some of our pizza.

I didn’t even really know what Agenda 21 was, until I had to research it after Mr. Cowan’s continued presence. I knew about the Earth Summit. All I really knew was that I was trying to do something good to cut down on traffic congestion, increase the overall happiness and well-being of my constituents, and increase the efficiency and liveable qualities of my community. Imagine my surprise, then, when anti-UN folks from all corners of Maine turned out to speak against what we were doing. The odd thing about it was that it was the only time that an opposing group was somewhat gentle with me- they loved the fact that I raised my own food and had chickens and goats, and they just figured that I didn’t realize the evil that I committed. If you read the article I cite, Mr. Cowan says as much (Curtis, 2011).

 

In discussing my own experience, I am not so much talking about myself as bringing up a very real consideration of political life that few people realize. People seem to think that politicians are just by nature duplicitous, or with an ax to grind, and maybe that’s true in some cases, but there I was just trying to do the right thing and look what happened. I didn’t even know that a bunch of people thought I was a communist and were saying so in the media until a local reporter walked up and said, “Greetings, Comrade,” with a twinkle in his eye.

In the midst of all of this, the Deepwater Horizon was pumping out oil into the Gulf of Mexico. I can’t find it online now, but at the time, there was a website that you could go to that showed the gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf by the minute. In fact, I would often sit at city council meetings with that website open, watching the ticker go up- while listening to citizens like Ted Cowan decry any attempt that policy makers made to make one little small change in JUST the way we built roads and accomodated increased traffic in Maine.

The BP blowout went on for 87 days, and spilled 2 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone wanted someone to do something, but nothing was done. And this is why I discuss the example of Gateway One: a coalition of well-meaning towns and policy makers, setting effective standards for sensible transportation policy, suddenly nixed by a group who feels that their rights may at some point be infringed upon- and no matter how Gothic their claims, the next governor of the State of Maine was sympathetic and nixed all funding for the project. If we couldn’t get Gateway One in place, which would have cut down vehicular trips substantially without infringing on personal transportation “freedoms”- and in fact, would have made vehicular transport much more enjoyable due to sensible traffic planning that cut down on congestion- how in the world are we supposed to do anything substantive about millions of gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, after the fact? If we can’t get one small proactive change made, how can we set policy retroactively, in reaction to global catastrophe?

Well- I think we can. Maybe that’s not as emphatic a statement as Barack Obama made when he said, “Yes, we can,” but, maybe I’m a bit more like the Little Train that Could. I don’t believe that there can be one politician on the planet that has not had to plow his or her way through the most unbelievable public opposition to a good idea, armed with Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations, with his or her policy wonks flanking the podium. Just watch Elizabeth Warren in action sometime. She has a team that rivals a rap artist’s entourage.

The fact is, the public is always going to have concerns about new ideas or change, maybe for the right or maybe for the wrong reasons. Human beings just aren’t programmed to feel comfortable with change. And human beings elect congress. If we could get some more human beings to participate in that exercise, it would be wonderful, but in the meantime, this is what we have. On top of this handicap, we have a nation that is essentially governed by big business lobby, such as BP. For example, if you go to the website Open Secrets, you will discover that BP, or British Petroleum, has spent $117,042,984 in lobbying since 1998 and made $8,083,633 in campaign contributions since 1990 (Open Secrets, 2017).

Answering the question, “should the government do more or less” in the face of a global environmental crisis such as an oil spill, which was caused by a corporate entity, begins at the moment when one ascertains that the corporate entity in question is making campaign contributions, at all. In 2010, the landmark opinion was given by the Supreme Court known as Citizens United striking down restrictions on corporations or unions making campaign contributions from their own finances (Wermiel, 2012). For example, the number above given for BP campaign contributions would have had to have been mostly washed through various Political Action Committees or used for advertising as opposed to given directly- and it’s not clear from the Open Secrets website how that could have worked, nor is it worth worrying about at this moment, in concept. What is worth worrying about how the level of campaign contributions may be increasing as a result of Citizens United, and the fact that when major corporations are contributing to campaign coffers, it becomes very difficult for the politicians to do anything constructive about implementing environmental or sustainable energy policy, because clearly, now there is a vested interest in the new personhood of the corporation.

Interestingly, the means that President Obama often outflanked the lack of political will amongst congressional delegates on the corporate take is the same method – sort of- used by President Trump. Obama used rulemaking in the case of environmental policy, using the breadth of the EPA administrative capability to get things done independently of needing a congressional vote (Kraft, 2015, p. 382). This is no new tactic. All policy has to go to some administering body to be turned into a set of rules, and many such bodies as the EPA have jurisdictional powers to cause things to be independent of a congressional debate. In Maine, no surprise, one of the first actions Governor LePage undertook was the dismantling of two standing committees- Labor and Economics- and the re-forming of the two committees into one less-powerful committee. He then moved on to Natural Resources and Agriculture. No fool, he knew the real power was in the pens of the administrators, who he quickly set about firing.

President Trump accomplishes much of the same thing with his executive orders: and one of his first orders was to rescind enacting legislation blocking the Dakota Access pipeline in South Dakota, since the timeline before redaction was impossible had not been crossed upon his taking office (Meyer, 2017).

But meanwhile, here we are, with the sister pipeline to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Keystone XL, spilling over 200,000 gallons of crude in South Dakota.

So what should we do? If we’ve learned any lesson at all from the Deepwater Horizon Spill in 2010, it’s not clear. Since then, we’ve made it possible for corporations to give from their own finances to political campaigns, since according to the Supreme Court, corporations are an entity, and therefore protected as a person under the First Amendment. Since then, we’ve seen corporations continue to strengthen their grip on Congress. We’ve exited the Paris accords, and our current administration has loosened every environmental step in the right direction possible in as sort a time as possible, with absolutely no consideration of sustainable development or sustainable energy policy.

However, do I think that there is hope? Yes. I am not exactly sure why. Considering that I began this exploration of the inability of government to do anything substantive about energy policy with a rather quaint accounting of public outcry over a possible communist conspiracy, and I finished up by blasting our corporate-controlled government, one might wonder why I still have hope. I do, though, and here’s what I think should be done.

First of all, we need to re-invest in education. The people of our nation are on a whole less educated than in the past, and continue to lose interest in current events. Most high school students will know absolutely nothing about Net Neutrality until I show up on Monday morning. But this is the exact way that they are being blocked from any substantive or critical debate. They need to read, and think, and have time to contemplate and argue. And they aren’t given this time or space. What we call education contains, sadly, more form than function.

Second, we need to get corporate money out of politics. Corporations have absolutely no business giving money to political candidates. They aren’t people, and they shouldn’t have First Amendment rights as people. An entity and a person are not the same thing.

Third, we need to invest in sustainable infrastructure and energy policy. Fracking is not the solution: it’s just a quick-fix that is easier for oil companies to re-tool into, as the technology is similar, as opposed to manufacturing solar arrays.

Fourth, we need to invest in higher education once again that creates opportunity for people to fill the skilled jobs gap, which according to the tech club, Skills USA, a chapter of which I just started runng down here in Pagosa for the kids, 600,000 jobs right now are going unfilled due to the skills gap, and by 2020, 10 million new skilled workers will be needed (Skills USA, 2017).

If we were to follow these four steps, eventually we would see the train of environmental and energy policy disaster slow down. It’s not a quick fix. However, educating the people and taking the power away from those who stand to profit and putting it back in the hands of the people is the true sustainable answer.

References

 

Kraft, M. E., & Furlong, S. R. (2015). In Public Policy: Politics, Analysis, and Alternatives (5th ed.). Environment and Energy Policy. Los Angeles: SAGE/CQ Press.

 

Weinand, Gerald. (2010, November 24). The Right Side of UN Agenda 21 in Maine. In the Daily Kos. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2010/11/24/923232/-

 

 

Curtis, Abigail. (2011, March 3). State suspends midcoast road plan seen by some as ‘global conspiracy’. In The Bangor Daily News. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from http://bangordailynews.com/2011/03/02/news/gateway-1-planning-process-suspended-by-state/

 

Open Secrets. (2017, n.d.). BP, Profile for All Election Cycles. In Open Secrets. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/summary.php?id=D000000091&cycle=A

 

Wermiel, Stephen. (2012, May 18). SCOTUS for law students: A campaign finance face-off. In SCOTUS blog. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from http://www.scotusblog.com/2012/05/scotus-for-law-students-a-campaign-finance-face-off-sponsored-by-bloomberg-law/

 

Meyer, Robinson. (2017, January 24). Trump’s Dakota Access Pipeline Memo: What we know right now. In The Atlantic. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/trumps-dakota-access-pipeline-memo-what-we-know-right-now/514271/

 

Meyer, Robinson. (2017, November 16). 200,000 gallons of oil spill from the Keystone Pipeline. In The Atlantic. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/11/200000-gallons-of-oil-spill-from-the-keystone-pipeline/546158/

 

Skills USA. (2017, n.d.). The Skilled Jobs Gap. In Skills USA. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from https://www.skillsusa.org/about/why-career-technical-education/stem-and-cte-alignment/u-s-skills-gap/

 

GHOST BOXES: REUSING ABANDONED BIG BOX SUPERSTORES ACROSS AMERICA

Introduction

Big Box Stores evolved from the department store model, simply being a bigger version of Sears or JC Penney, taking the department model and creating a one-stop-shop opportunity for thrifty consumers by adding in even more products such as groceries or automotive or sporting goods. Big Boxes have been conjectured by some to be part of the demise of department stores like Sears and family businesses alike, though when the first Big Boxes such as Super Wal-Mart started appearing, this was a hotly contested topic, considering many planners and town decision makers were in favor of the additional property and business tax revenue these monolithic stores would bring in, and local shoppers were happy about access to lower prices than those charged at smaller stores with less volume. I ran for city council in my hometown and won in 2008 based on a platform of a cohesive vision for city planning, rather than allowing sprawl to dictate the terms of how our city developed (Chappell, 2008). It is still the case that many economists, scholars, and planners argue about whether Big Box retailers have been a good thing or not for the towns in which they locate. In a New Yorker article, Michael Hicks, a professor at Ball State University, states that Wal-Mart is not the “small business bogeyman” that we’ve all assumed it to be (Barrett, 2016).

Whatever one’s socio-economic or political view on that topic may be, department stores like Sears began to fail in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, right about the same time the Big Boxes showed up, and were unable to keep up with competition from big retailers like Target or Wal-Mart (Kotler and Keller, 2016). I was personally involved in a fight against Super-Walmart and later, Home Depot, followed by Walgreen’s, in my home town of Rockland, Maine, which didn’t win me many popularity contests amongst voters initially, but later on led to the residents of the town being very concerned about protecting the sense of place and the uniqueness of their small New England city and protecting neighborhood and downtown zoning.

There are many articles and opinions concerning why mall-based major retailers like Sears or JC Penney might have failed, or why the replacement Big Box stores are now beginning to fall to the same fate. However, given my passion for community development and sustainable land use planning, I decided to focus on what to do with the Big Box spaces once they do fail, in order to provide an alternative to the blight that they cause in a community once empty. True, other retailers do often move into empty box stores- in my hometown, the more bizarre example being the K-Mart failing, so then Wal-Mart bought the space, tore the building completely down, and built another one just like it- only to move out of that building within a few short years to build a Super Wal-Mart in the adjacent town of Thomaston. Then, the “new old” Wal-Mart sat empty for several years, until an Ocean State Job Lot came along and moved into it- thankfully without tearing it down and re-building, at least. Just next door, I lost the change of zoning fight to save a historic Sears bungalow- in a strange irony, considering the subject of this paper- someone bought it, tore it down, and built a Chinese restaurant exactly like the Chinese restaurant just next door. If two more members of Rockland City Council had voted with me, the lovely historic bungalow would still be there, and the ugly restaurant exactly like the one next door would not have been built. It never did get off the ground as a restaurant, incidentally- It was shuttered for a while, and then just before I moved to Colorado, it was converted into an indoor play area for toddlers. I’m not sure if it’s still in use or not. The restaurant next door, exactly like it, was empty when I moved. Across the street, the gigantic Home Depot I fought a losing battle against is marginally operating, and recently, the JC Penney closed.

Therefore, given that it seems as though not just Rockland, Maine, but all of America will soon be if not already contending with massive quantities of vacant and blighted malls or Big Box stores, I decided to research some options for creative re-use of these spaces, without having to tear them down, which wastes resources and creates a negative environmental footprint, as well as wastes an opportunity for re-use instead of continued blight. In many cities, this may be more of an urgent call for creative community development from our federal government than may be possible at this time, given the interests of the current administration, and less of a composite of hip things you can do with an empty super-store. For example, in Fairfield, Alabama, a town that had to let inmates out of prison because they couldn’t afford to feed them, and that lost 1,100 jobs when US Steel shutdown, when the Super Wal-Mart shut down, the city had to cut its own payroll and rely on “charitable donations” to other businesses in the town from Wal-Mart, considering that the Super Store had been the anchor store providing the bulk of essential services to the residents of the town (Barrett, 2016).

Creative Re-Use Examples and Ecomonic Implications

In a podcast on 99% Invisible, which is one of the more popular podcasts on internet radio and whose founder, Roman Mars, holds the record for the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever (Roman Mars, 2017), Kurt Kohlstedt (2016) took listeners through the paces of some successful re-use projects that have transformed empty Big Box spaces. Kohlstedt is an architect, and on the staff at 99% Invisible. His own website, Web Urbanist, covers the topics of art, architecture, and design from the standpoints of social and political interaction with public space, marketing in light of socio-eco-political viewpoints, and just weird hip concepts like pre-fab Hobbit houses- which I suppose could be viewed as another nod in the direction of Sears and their pre-fabricated homes of yesteryear.

However arty these projects may all seem, they have a dire and immediate purpose in the world of a nation crumbling under decades of bad land use planning decisions and the subsequent woes brought about by failed policy direction which chose the quick fix of low paying retail job attraction over skilled jobs development, not to mention what a community with a large population without motor vehicle transport does when the one and only one grocery store and pharmacy closes.

One example of empty box store re-use that Kohlstedt discusses is a conversion to a library. The McAllen Public Library in McAllen, Texas is much more than a library, however- public spaces are available in the building including a teen café, an auditorium, many public meeting spaces, and several public computer labs. The entire process of the transformation from Wal-Mart to library is documented on the library’s web site (McAllen Public Library, 2017). This may not seem the most practical project in some cases: for example, in a town that is struggling mightily with serious economic blight, the financial resources or fundraising opportunities may not be present to create such a fine library. McAllen, Texas has a population of just over 140,000 people, and is modestly affluent, with a median income of just over $45,000 (US Census, 2010). Meanwhile, Fairfield, Alabama contains just under 11,000 souls, and the median income is just under $35,000 (US Census, 2010). However, Fairfield is not far from Birmingham- 9.2 miles, to be precise- and Birmingham is the county seat with a population of 212,000. However, the median income of Birmingham is only $31,000 on average, and perhaps a new library may not be the best use for a region that also has about five times the amount of TANF and other public assistance receipts than does McAllen, Texas (US Census, 2010). But, perhaps a trade and technical college would be a good use of the space, given that there is a clear need for job skills training- which could then eventually attract back the skilled jobs that Fairfield lost when the Steel Mill shut down. This however takes long-range strategic planning on the part of local government working in concert with state and federal community and economic development programs, which again sadly does not seem to be the focus of our federal administration at this time. However, this does not mean that forward thinking business people could not be approached by more creative town councilors with the idea.

One point that Kohlstedt drives home in his article is that there is large footprint of infrastructure that extends for miles and is left in place long after a Big Box store shuts down, and therefore, towns and cities have a strong incentive to reuse the space, given that stoplights, new intersections and turning lanes, and utilities are not cheap to install or maintain. Quoting Julia Christensen, author of Big Box Reuse, Kohlstedt maintains that there is a great deal of “embedded energy which creates a strong incentive for adaptive reuse” (Christensen, 2008). This infrastructure could facilitate something like a school, with improved roads and parking, and the need for larger volume infrastructure. Given that trade and technical schools still depend on in-person training as opposed to online learning, this could be a good use for economically depressed areas: or perhaps an online school site could be combined with the hands-on school.

Other projects across America that Kohlstedt showcases are a center where resellers and flea market sellers can congregate, fitness and wellness centers, and one of the more unusual reuse examples, offices for the Hormel Company and a giant Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota (Christensen, 2008).

On the subject of reuse of Big Box and department stores for offices, the co-working space provider WeWork just purchased a 676,000 square foot building from Hudson’s Bay in order to purchase a flagship Lord and Taylor location on New York’s Fifth Avenue for a whopping $850 million dollars (Mitchell, 2017). Clearly, this is a site-specific situation, as there are thousands of freelancers or businesses in New York City looking for office space, and space is at a premium. If a firm can simply step into a beautiful space for a more reasonable amount of money than finding the space, setting it up, and having to hold up all the overhead, it becomes much more economical. In addition, high speed internet, coffee, and in some cases craft beer are available on site (WeWork, 2017). Interestingly, WeWork and AirBNB are teaming up to provide traveling workers with spaces where they can both stay and continue working, which should prove to be a very successful model (Zaleski, 2017).

Perhaps more pertinent to Colorado today is a use as a charter school. In Charlotte, North Carolina, a K-Mart was repurposed as the Sugar Creek Charter School, learning center for 900 students (Christensen, 2008). Shopping aisles were used as hallways to save on redesign costs, and the lack of windows was solved by introducing skylights into the space. Here in Archuleta County, we’ve had a recent instance of a reuse of a space for a school: a much more aestetically-pleasing space, but a new use nonetheless. The natural horsemanship training and supplies provider, Parelli, is now sharing their space with a new charter school, given that Parelli’s business has fallen dramatically over the past ten or so years and they are consolidating operations. They had pitched the building to the county for a new jail, but the county decided to build on land that had been purchased previously.

Conclusions

There are pros and cons to reuse of failed department or Big Box stores: the first con could simply be that if governmental policies had not been in place to attract Big Box stores in the first place, such as zoning changes or tax incentives, perhaps local businesses or the smaller department stores would not have gone under, and all the expensive infrastructure needed to support a Big Box store would not have needed to have been constructed by the town or city where the Big Box store located. Clearly, this kind of investment is expensive, and when a store closes and tax revenue is lost, the economic model for infrastructure investment in order to attract business falls off the chart at a rapid rate. However, given that many communities find themselves in this position and that there is no turning back the clock, I believe that each situation has to be assessed creatively within the community for solutions, which can function to bring a community together in order to plan a use that can ultimately benefit and create cohesiveness. There can be initial perceived cons to any use: for example, a school may not generate the tax revenue that a private business would, which could be a short-term issue for an economically stressed region in both the case of a charter school or a technical college. However, the long term benefits could certainly be shown to outweigh the negative initial impact, and there is positive initial impact in jobs creation, including but not limited to a rise in employment as teachers would need to be hired to work at the schools, and an increase in business revenues and taxes, as nearby services would see a rise in business due to an increase in activity at the school. A Spam Museum may only be specific to the location of the headquarters of the Hormel Company, but perhaps other communities might have a business or an industry that could house a historic component, such as a mining or a logging museum. Museums can be popular with summer visitors, generating additional tourism revenue. Coworking space may not be relevant to a small community, but perhaps coworking space combined with a finess studio and a restaurant could work. Despite the blight and headache that a vacant large retail space can mean for a town or city, sometimes these catastrophes of civic planning can create opportunities for people to come together and find creative solutions.

 

References:

Chappell, George. (2008, Nov 5). Dickerson prevails in Rockland race. In The Bangor Daily News. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://bangordailynews.com/2008/11/05/politics/dickerson-prevails-in-rockland-race/

Barrett, Brian. (2016, January 30). When Wal-Mart Leaves Town. In The New Yorker. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/when-walmart-leaves-town

Kotler, P. & Keller, K. 2016. Marketing Management 15th Edition, Chapter 18: Managing Retailing, Wholesaling, and Logistics. Boston, Ma, Pearson.

Kohlstedt, Kirk. (2016, June 27). Ghost Boxes: Reusing Abandoned Big Box Superstores Across America. In 99% Invisible. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://99percentinvisible.org/article/ghost-boxes-reusing-abandoned-big-box-superstores-across-america/

Mars, Roman. (2017, November 5). About The Staff. In 99% Invisible. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://99percentinvisible.org/about/the-staff/

McAllen Public Library. (2017, n.d.). New Main Library. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from http://www.mcallenlibrary.net/about/newmain

US Census. (2010, n.d.). McAllen, Texas Quickfacts. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/mcallencitytexas/POP060210

US Census. (2010, n.d.). Fairfield City, Alabama Quickfacts. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/fairfieldcityalabama,mcallencitytexas/POP060210

Christensen, Julie. 2008. Big Box Reuse. MIT Press.

Christensen, Julie. (2008, n.d.) Big Box Reuse, the Big Box Map. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from http://www.bigboxreuse.com/spam.html

Mitchell, Donna. (2017, November 3). Hudson’s Bay/WeWork Deal Might Point to a Solution for Struggling Department Stores. In National Real Estate Investor. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from http://www.nreionline.com/retail/hudson-s-baywework-deal-might-point-solution-struggling-department-stores

WeWork. (2017, n.d.). We Humanize Work. In WeWork.com. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://www.wework.com/

Zaleski, Olivia. (2017, October 4). AirBNB Teams Up With WeWork to Lure Business Travelers. In Bloomberg Technology. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-04/airbnb-teams-up-with-wework-to-lure-business-travelers

Christensen, Julie. (2008, n.d.) Big Box Reuse, the Big Box Map. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from http://www.bigboxreuse.com/sugarcreek.html

 

 

 

Today women get 18% of computer science degrees, down from 37% 30 years ago.

In my usual daily routine of trying to gather research for something else, I stumble upon a statistic that sets me back on my heels, and I need to write. To process. Here is the statistic:

“Today women get 18% of computer science degrees, down from 37% 30 years ago.”

Google is trying to fix that by changing the image of what a computer scientist looks like on TV shows and movies.

Here’s the link to the article: https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2017/09/01/google-campaign-more-women-minorities-computer-science-roles-tv-movies-hollywood/622088001/

We are all familiar with the stereotypical computer geek- maybe a little overweight, maybe looks like a hippie, maybe a loner without relationships, eating pizza out of a box.

Here is stereotypical video embed number one, so that you can get the at-a-glance view of the fact that THERE ARE NO WOMEN on this show. As in, no women. AND all the coders are the stereotypical nit wits described above.
But don’t listen to me. Just look for yourself.

Do you see ME in that trailer anywhere? Are you aware that I am fluent in more computer coding languages than I can count offhand, sitting here typing right now? That I would have to take valuable time out of my day to think about all the languages I know? (And thereby not have as much time to tell you about my current level of outrage at my discovery of this HORRIBLE statistic?)

To try to be upbeat, I am hoping to coordinate with some initiatives to get more girls coding in my classrooms soon, but my feeling of outrage and anger is real. Only 18% of women get computer science degrees. Say it with me.

So how DO we fix this?

The “fix” proposed by Google in the article where I found the Awful Statistic isn’t much more appealing than the complete reverse example of the TV show, Silicon Valley. If you scroll down the Google article, you encounter a group of somewhat vacuous looking t’weens linking arms and the movie they are in is called “Hyperlinked”- oh, duh, because they are linking arms.

The article states: Hyperlinked is the tale of five best friends or “soulsies” in middle school played by popular girl band L2M who use their programming chops to create and code a website for girls to share personal advice.

I’m embedding the video so that you can get a good look at the at-a-glance reprehensibility of this soul-sucking vomit-inducing trailer. If that’s even a word or concept.

So, evidently we women and young girls should learn to code so that we can share and update advice on our hair and what to wear. NOT because the planet we live on is in ecological crisis, NOT because social injustices continue that need data scientists with chops to analyze.

Hopefully I can continue to fight the battle to change what we do with our technology. Technology has the power to change lives and the world for the better. Not just to exist to discuss our boyfriends or girlfriends, our hair, or to invent hashtags that have no meaningful connotation nor will anyone ever use them in a search string.

Today, my students are working away on the task I’ve set them to: creating a Powerpoint presentation that isn’t JUST about learning to make a Powerpoint, but also about the critical thinking necessary to identify a world problem, research a technology that may be with us within five years to address the problem, and then discuss relative pros and cons concerning the technology.

My four classes working on this project have discussed everything from self-driving cars to bio-printing to life straws to a bicycle that sucks up water and filters it while you ride to a soccer ball that generates electricity when you kick it. We’ve looked at artificial trees that remove carbon from the atmosphere. We’ve looked at homelessness, climate change, the California fires, the hurricanes, talked about cap and trade and energy companies that mandate a percentage of coal production which thereby can nix cleaner technologies, electric cars, solar cars, solar energy, and indoor hydroponic farming. Some of the presentations looked at the odd psychology of the human being in light of technology, such as the trend of young Japanese tech workers buying Gatebox, a 25,000 hologram girl living in a little plexiglass case- somewhat reminiscent of “I Dream of Genie.” Dressed in a kinky maid’s outfit, she talks, and texts little reminders that she’s waiting at home for her master to arrive home from work. (And what woman would want to go work for a Japanese high tech firm, if her co-workers had a Gatebox waiting at home?)

But bravely, we learned about Gatebox, and with grit and courage, attacked the issue of sexist stereotyping in the world of technology.

You’ll probably want to read this article: The Creepy Virtual Assistant that Embodies Japan’s Biggest Problems:http://fortune.com/2016/12/18/gatebox-virtual-assistant-japan/

We learned about Virtual Reality, and talked about why teens want to “zone out”- because they are bored. But why?

“Because when we were babies, we were born with a sense of wonder,” one student told me. “But as we grew, we wanted to explore the world on our own, but we realized we were in the clutches of our parents and teachers, and we couldn’t escape.”

We talked about co-housing, multi-age schools, community inter-generational projects…

And not once did a student get up to make a presentation about a technology that could fix their hair or their relationships. But each student attacked the problems of the world bravely, and tried to find solutions as best they could in light of the technology they researched.

If only Hollywood would make shows about them.

the underneath of my snowboard.

Hi there Ride Snowboards, this deck is the shape of the Prophet 158cm that I think you made around 2010 or 2009.

Here’s my underneath design. So if you want to do this.

Yup.