Time to dial down the rhetoric and address Tallahassee’s very real problems

This article originally appeared in The Tallahassee Democrat.

Tallahassee’s public and private leaders need to go to their respective yoga mats and take a deep breath.

The vitriol, indignation and anger dogging current public discourse over city policy is doing little to instill confidence among its citizenry. It also distracts community leaders from long overdue conversations critical to the region’s governance and future.

The current spat began when City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow took local leadership to task for, in his view, accommodating business interests at the expense of the public interest. His published comments triggered an imprudently quick reprimand by the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, a private sector organization, through public censure. The public conversation has eroded ever since.

Meanwhile, in a federal courtroom, a prominent businessman was convicted of public corruption based in no small part on the testimony of a disgraced former mayor and his associates.

Matlow’s comments were simply setting fire to the tinder of frustration fueled by public indignation over appalling conduct by its elected officials and local business elites.

Understandably, current leaders want to distance themselves from this sordid episode. But too many are dismissing the events as a “one off” from a rogue elected official or business interest.

The pattern of behavior and manipulation unfolded over years in which Tallahassee’s public leadership was oblivious to, ignored, or dismissed corrupt acts. It’s indicative of a much bigger, systemic problem.

Local governments have lost their moorings when major infrastructure projects exceed approved budgets by 60% or more (e.g., Cascade Park & Trail), fail to adequately structure and vet public bidding to give an edge to insiders (e.g., the Edison Restaurant), justify public subsidies for urban amenities by claiming they are economic development projects (i.e., sports stadiums), allow regulatory discretion to delay projects by months and years, and use last-minute maneuvers to exclude grassroots community organizers.

While Matlow’s commentary was unfocused and unnecessarily inflammatory, the substance of his viewpoint carried an important truth: A governing system that allows significant levels of unanchored discretion in local policymaking, regulatory decision making and administrative compliance is an invitation to corruption. Private interests will find a way to use the public process for personal gain.

What played out in the federal courtroom was just the tip of the iceberg. Without clear objectives tied to measurable outcomes, governments cannot be held accountable for the promises they make to their citizens or correct themselves if their actions run amok.

Establishing measurable goals that allow accountability in government is hard, but far from impossible. Local officials will need to tap third-party expertise, invest in long-term structural reform and establish achievable goals and objectives.

Fortunately, Florida State University has an entire school of faculty with nationally recognized professional experience capable of helping the region re-establish its mooring. We can restore transparency and accountability in our local government.

First, however, elected officials and other public leaders must dial down the rhetoric. Instead, they should focus on what matters – re-establishing a healthy, fair, publicly accessible and sustainable government.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D | DeVoe L. Moore Center

Samuel R. Staley is Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. He earned his PhD in public administration with concentrations in urban planning and public finance.

Source for featured image: https://coss.fsu.edu/dmc/faculty/auto-draft/

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