Friday, November 05, 2010

Hizzoner's task-force surrogates show a shallow community reach, notwithstanding the news media's view

In recent analysis, City Paper reporter Joey Garrison seems to take a critical eye toward Mayor Karl Dean's use of task forces on various issues, but I believe he falls into the trap of mistaking task force leadership with direct and broad representation of community issues. Some of us on the outside looking in detect a leap in the reporter's logic:
With the creation of task forces and other groups, Dean deflects such charges [of an insular mayor's office]. He creates community buy-in, ownership over major projects and issues. Some people believe they have a direct voice inside the mayor’s office. It would be naive and inaccurate to point to Dean’s various groups as the primary reason for his political success, but creating a line of communication between voters and his office doesn’t hurt.
While reporter Garrison provides no warrant for the claim that the task force has created community buy-in (other than a comparison with a city where an unpopular mayor operates without task forces), lets assume for a second that there is evidence to support. The task forces do not bubble up from the grassroots leadership in Nashville. They are hand-picked by the Mayor's Office. They seem to function more like a House of Lords (to the Metro Council's House of Commons), an upper house of unelected specialists on favorable terms with the courthouse class.

I remember reading a long time ago that there are at least two sets of leaders: those who are the leaders who operate in office and those who continue to lead outside of any recognized office. In order to be a community-connected executive, Mayor Dean would have to have mechanisms to connect with both formal and informal leaders. Task forces allow him to connect with a few formal leaders unlikely to criticize his leadership. If the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods were not a shell of the robust unit it was under the previous administration, Karl Dean would have a means of connecting with community leaders who are organic and independent, but who would nonetheless bring a broader vision.

I cannot exactly be sure; maybe Karl Dean prefers not to have a broader, more critical vision. The path of least resistance is appointing a surrogate task force to project the image of community connection. However, it seems jumping to conclusions to argue that the task force keeps him from being insular, when in all probability, this select group of volunteer advisors may be helping him stave off demands and expectations that rise from the rest of us in the unwashed rabble. Moreover, the campaign finance potential of the task force leaders is likely a sweet lock.

My own experience tells me that Joey Garrison probably overstated the case when he referred to the Mayor as having achieved community buy-in with task forces. The first neighborhoods meeting Karl Dean held after his election was branded as "Connecting Communities." The discussion was fairly tightly controlled and even the audience feedback questionnaires were narrowly framed with leading questions limiting neighborhood issues to school drop-out rates and youth crime, both of which were Dean-for-Mayor campaign staples. Both also precluded any feedback on zoning, developers, and a host of other issues affecting communities.

Getting community buy-in requires a little something more than putting organic concerns of local leaders (like rezoning or growth that flies in the face of community planning) on the back burner and using task force leaders as surrogates for everyone else. Neighborhood concerns with growth and development, with the declining significance of services and infrastructure are just as legitimate as the non-threatening issues that the Mayor's Office cherry picks to promote itself and pre-position for the next election.

There is no guarantee that Mayor Dean will follow up on the task force recommendations, worthy or not, and task force leaders may be so thankful to have semblance of an advisory role that they may not press questions about unrealized recommendations. As bad as that might be, still worse is the prospect that broader community-defined issues will be overlooked or ignored because the task force system gives the Mayor's Office a measure of deniability against charges that they governed without regard to community concerns.

UPDATE: Matt Pulle comments on the weak tea of task force governance:
Recently, Garrison, whose work I normally appreciate, penned a piece on Mayor Karl Dean’s penchant for appointing approximately 934 task forces and committees (I’m exaggerating slightly) to address some of Nashville’s more entrenched problems. Though the story worked from a promising premise, it inexplicably failed to explore whether the mayor’s strategy fits in with his irritating reluctance to take bold, definitive stands on key issues.

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