Sunday, May 14, 2017

Lancaster's Primary Election--Who I Support

I wrote this because I care about the city, and hope some of you share my concerns and will vote for the candidate you think addresses those concerns. There are risks with voicing an opinion, but this election cycle is incredibly important for Lancaster and I'm very worried about the direction of the city.

It's a tough call for a lot of us left-leaners in Lancaster--three good candidates, especially Kevin and Danene. I like and respect Norman, but he moved back into the city just to run for Mayor, which, to me, isn't enough commitment.

Whoever wins will face at least two opponents in the Fall, and hopefully by then they'll have addressed the issues I care about.

I'm as concerned about process as outcome when it comes to governance, because process often determines outcome, and systems are often designed with that in mind.

It's just my outsider opinion, but the City consistently shoots itself in its municipal foot because it opts for less transparency in its processes instead of fully embracing it, and that turns people off, makes some bitter, disillusions others. Some become distrustful, and many, many feel left out of of their own democracy, and that their voices aren't valued.

And they are right: their voices are inconvenient to progress in the apparent view of some in the administration, as expressed through their own actions and the decision-making processes the City embraces. It's a shame; a lot of good people work hard to make Lancaster a better place, including the administration, but that work is often tainted by what must be a certain confidence that they know best, and because they know best, no other voices matter, aside from what's required by law.

Well, I've had enough of that.

Local elections, local public meetings, local government are the only means through which people can influence the decisions that effect their daily lives. And the people in this city--largely working class and poor--deserve better than the access they've been given by an administration that often appears mistrustful of the public it should be designed to serve.

The choices for mayor come down to several key questions:
  • can they lead and manage an organization
  • are they willing to restructure City government, including decision-making processes to make a more equitable, transparent set of systems that embrace participatory democracy and respect the rights and voices of the people who live here
  • will they insist on transparency and greater accountability to the public, and stop the cynical practice of privately pre-casting decisions or outsourcing decisions to unaccountable organizations
  • are they willing to challenge the Police department and radically transform the practices and culture there, with the goal of more equitable treatment of citizens, better handling of problem cops (only after 6 separate lawsuits against a cop did the City finally get him off the force, after many years), and a force more reflective of the people it serves.
  • will they address poverty head-on as the primary economic issue of the city. That's not just one good job, it's transportation, healthcare, home ownership, finance, personal finance, education, childcare, food access--it's a lot about establishing the equality of opportunity in the city, which it currently lacks, partly because of the focus on supporting visitors through visitor-centric economic development.
  • will they drop the City's terrible, Guffman-esque tagline "a City Authentic". Read that again: "The City of Lancaster, a City Authentic" reads like "The City of Lancaster--we really are a city. No, really." Terrible. 

I like and admire Danene a lot, and think she's generally been a positive force on City Council; she's made it a very tough call, but it became very clear to me she isn't the right choice at this time for the City. She lost me when she pledged to build on Mayor Gray's "success", which includes a 50% increase in the poverty rate during his terms and the continuation of systemic and structural inequity in the City.

Further, she hasn't led aggressively with some key issues:  policing the police, the lead contamination crisis (it's a daily imminent threat and the city's response has been slow and continues to be weak), decision-making systems, accountability, and transparency--I'm unsatisfied with both her performance on council and with her campaign on these topics. That said, if she wins she'd possibly address them; she is thoughtful, caring, intelligent, and collaborative.

Transparency, inclusiveness, and participatory democracy are important because they can change the outcomes of decision-making processes (I'll leave the other issues aside--this is already too long).

The City takes advantage of the use of Authorities and the Sunshine Laws to shield information from public scrutiny.  It outsources key responsibilities  to private nonprofit organizations that are unaccountable to the public and not subject to the already weak transparency laws on the books, and that undermines democracy and prevents public participation in it. These are a few examples of the arms-length, closed-door decision-making supported and advanced by the Gray administration:
  • Internet Financing--City Council did not publicly review the financial statements of MAW communications before approving a loan by the City. I hate to give credence to LIP News because of its often personal and unnecessarily vitriolic tone, but it published a letter from the City that revealed that Council didn't evaluate the company's finances prior to making the loan.  Danene is the Finance Chair and should have been the active steward of this process, and should have made the financial statements available to the public and discussed it specifically in public session. There is nothing in the law that requires this, but the public deserves greater public discussion, transparency, oversight, and accountability when handing out multi-million dollar loans. We have no idea whether this is a good deal or not; "trust us" is not an adequate response from the City or Council.
  • The Lancaster Alliance led the economic development plan. The City outsourced the plan to a private nonprofit unaccountable to the public, whose board is largely from outside of the city and does not adequately reflect the people who live here. The plan arrived prior to public participation, complete with a map showing where they intended to focus resources. The "they" is unclear; that part of the process was not part of the "community meetings", which came after the fact. I'm not saying they didn't listen in those meetings, but showing up with a pre-determined map indicates they were looking for buy-in to existing plans, developed behind closed doors, with real estate development as a centerpiece; it was not a ground-up, grass-roots informed plan that addresses the actual economic needs of the city, though they have marketed it as such.

    Further, the word "poverty" was at the beginning of the final presentation; the presenter said "but this plan doesn't address that." So the forces behind the economic development plan don't believe that the 30% poverty rate is the City's primary economic issue, or don't believe the economic development plan can or should address poverty. There's something wrong about that.
  • LCSC operates the public surveillance system. LCSC is a private nonprofit not subject to public transparency laws. It operates in secret; having an "open house" does not equate to public transparency, nor does having a board with a member appointed by the mayor; it is not accountable to the public, and I believe it was set up in that way specifically to avoid public scrutiny. Yet it controls and operates a powerful network of cameras that can be used for both bad and good purposes. It is, in effect, a quasi-governmental agency; it performs a government function, it has one primary client (the police), and is partially funded by the City even though the mayor pledged it would not sink money into it. The camera operation should be subject to public scrutiny (or shut down), which can only happen if it's operated directly by the city.
  • The city's redevelopment authority sale of city properties. I've written about this before, and since then the City has done a bit to address it--that was encouraging but inadequate
That's a small dive into what dissatisfies me. I'm also a proud resident of the city, boast about it when I can, support it how I can, and have invested a lot of blood sweat and tears here over the years, as many others have. But I'd like it to be a great city for all of its residents first, before being featured as the "next Brooklyn" elsewhere, and I'm not convinced Danene is the best candidate to achieve that goal. 

Kevin Ressler for Mayor
I believe Kevin Ressler is willing to take on these issues and he has the management background the other candidates lack. Kevin understands that poverty is the main economic problem in the city. He's committed to social, racial, environmental, and economic justice. He's a big proponent of participatory democracy, and I think as mayor he'll make changes to the decision-making processes and systems that have led to a downtown-centric focus and away from the key, core issues that effect most people who live here. And very frankly: I think it's time for a mayor who isn't a white candidate from the northwest of the city,  the edge of my current neighborhood; it will make a difference. I'd like to see a more diverse city administration, more diversity in the Lancaster County Community Foundation management and board (not a city concern, but it effects us), more diversity and more city residents on the Lancaster Alliance board, etc, etc. The outcomes will change when the players at the table change, and the 30% poverty rate is the outcome created by the decisions made by the current and former players. 

I think Kevin would lead that kind of transformational change--and if you want to change the City to something more reflective of the people who live here, to something more equitable and reflective of your values, you should support Kevin. I don't agree with every last detail of his campaign (and wish the messaging were more crisp), but he has my support and I hope he wins. 

School Board
I don't know all the candidates, but I served on the school board with Harvey Miller and can say without a doubt he's my top candidate. I considered serving again, and one of the big draws was the chance to serve with Harvey again.  

The other is Mara McGrann--smart, committed, and involved. One of the worst attributes of some board members are 1) they don't know their stuff and 2) they don't speak up--Mara will have neither problem. 

City Council
Again, I don't know all the candidates. Ismail Smith is my top choice, Matt Johnson is likely my second.

Norman might be the sleeper candidate--he's right on a lot of issues, and if people vote by ethnicity (it's largely so historically), he could pull it off (this is a political/demographic statement and nothing else). That's an un-artful way of saying it. Lancaster's demographics cry out for better representation, but voter registration among Latinos in Lancaster has been very, very low (like less than 20%) and turnout is even lower--I don't have the numbers but it's frustratingly low. Any candidate that reaches out to register and engage Latino voters could have establish a new political power that could change the political landscape. 

Democrats and Democracy
I can't vote in the primary--I changed to "unaffiliated" after the Lancaster City Democrats held their clubby endorsement party, which created unnecessary bitterness and division within the party. Endorsements are exclusionary by nature, but the party should be inclusive and nurturing of democratic processes instead of tipping the scales. This should have been an open primary. 

The collective arrogance expressed in the endorsement of Danene for Mayor was particularly galling--that the committee somehow knows what's best for voters (prior to debates, prior to full campaigning), when we have two other qualified candidates, who are, it turns out, minorities; it wasn't just a missed opportunity to embrace inclusion, it was an opportunity to inspire and engage previously (and still) excluded people from the political process.

This was narrow and shortsighted, and it was frustrating to watch.

Further, the party (the titular head is the Mayor) has had 12 years to nurture and develop leadership across neighborhoods, but has failed to do so, so many, many committee seats remain empty. Politically, if you want political power, you need to work for it and take it, so it's up to Democrats who care about diversity and equality of representation to do something about it. The status quo isn't going to fill those seats, leaving an opportunity for someone to organize and take control of the party. As it should be, I guess, but no--it's not as it should be. The party should have ongoing projects to nurture and develop voices from all parts of the city.  

Thanks for listening. Good luck to all the candidates. 

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