Category Archives: Civic Duty

Trust Us

If you walked down just about any street in America and randomly asked people their opinions of “government” they would almost certainly describe it as bloated, bureaucratic, incompetent, invasive, etc. You would likely be challenged to find someone with something good to say.

Some of these negative assessments are earned – many governments are bloated, bureaucratic and, at times, incompetent – but some of the sentiments are the result of a cacophony of anti-government or small-government advocates. Some of them believe in their heart of hearts that all services, with the exception of public safety, would be most effectively provided by the private sectors. Others believe government is inherently evil and hold an Orwellian world view that just about anything the government does is an assault on individual liberty.

On the flip side of the coin you have people who see the government as the best option for addressing many of society’s ills, but they might see the folks running the show as a lesser light or the systems in place as overly bureaucratic and inefficient.

What all sides have in common, though, is a healthy case of cynicism about the government. Most simply do not trust it, whether from negative personal experiences dealing with the government (DMV lines come to mind), or from stories they’ve heard repeatedly from friends and from the media.

Luckily, for the most part the lack of trust is fed by relatively harmless inconveniences like long lines, higher than expected water bills or slow permitting processes for home improvements. That gives us all some ammunition for running jokes, but since we’re relatively safe and secure in our daily lives it doesn’t give us much cause for doing much more than telling jokes.

That’s why the Flint, MI water story is so important. Multiple governments failed to protect the health and safety of Flint’s residents, and apparently even worked to cover up their failings. This wasn’t a normal hot button issue, like the police shootings and “Black Lives Matter” stories that we heard so much about. While those stories were important and people were hurt, not everyone could identify with them because not everyone has had interactions with the police or could empathize with what it’s like to be black in America.

The Flint water story is about the failure of government to provide a fundamental service that affects everyone, safe drinking water, and then trying to cover it up. EVERYONE can picture themselves in that situation, and they can empathize with the plight of the citizens of Flint. The government violated the public trust and by doing so it weakened the very foundation upon which a civil society is built.

Not to overstate it, because we still do live in an incredibly stable society relative to the rest of the world, but if we don’t start demanding responsible governance from our elected leaders then we are going to see more and more failures like this one. We get enough of those and our society won’t seem so stable anymore.

So, let’s stop with the “all government is bad” rhetoric, along with its “all taxes are bad” cousin, and start having intelligent discussions about how government can best serve our citizens’ needs and take it from there.


How We Think About Charity is Wrong

This is a fantastic TED presentation by Dan Pallotta on why the non-profit industry is perpetually hamstrung by its inability, among other things, to break out of a structure that limits compensation, suppresses risk-taking, prohibits access to capital markets, imposes frugality at the expense of future growth potential and tags all overhead as negative.  It’s a must-watch for anyone in the non-profit sector, but the charitable arm of the non-profit sector in particular.

Here’s a link to the full transcript and a couple of excerpts that really hit home:

So in the for-profit sector, the more value you produce, the more money you can make. But we don’t like nonprofits to use money to incentivize people to produce more in social service. We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people. You know, you want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself…

Businessweek did a survey, looked at the compensation packages for MBAs 10 years of business school, and the median compensation for a Stanford MBA, with bonus, at the age of 38, was 400,000 dollars. Meanwhile, for the same year, the average salary for the CEO of a $5 million-plus medical charity in the U.S. was 232,000 dollars, and for a hunger charity, 84,000 dollars. Now, there’s no way you’re going to get a lot of people with $400,000 talent to make a $316,000 sacrifice every year to become the CEO of a hunger charity.

Some people say, “Well, that’s just because those MBA types are greedy.” Not necessarily. They might be smart. It’s cheaper for that person to donate 100,000 dollars every year to the hunger charity, save 50,000 dollars on their taxes, so still be roughly 270,000 dollars a year ahead of the game, now be called a philanthropist because they donated 100,000 dollars to charity, probably sit on the board of the hunger charity, indeed, probably supervise the poor SOB who decided to become the CEO of the hunger charity,and have a lifetime of this kind of power and influence and popular praise still ahead of them…

So we’ve all been taught that charities should spend as little as possible on overhead things like fundraising under the theory that, well, the less money you spend on fundraising, the more money there is available for the cause. Well, that’s true if it’s a depressing world in which this pie cannot be made any bigger. But if it’s a logical world in which investment in fundraising actually raises more funds and makes the pie bigger, then we have it precisely backwards, and we should be investing more money, not less, in fundraising, because fundraising is the one thing that has the potential to multiply the amount of moneyavailable for the cause that we care about so deeply…

This is what happens when we confuse morality with frugality. We’ve all been taught that the bake sale with five percent overhead is morally superior to the professional fundraising enterprise with 40 percent overhead, but we’re missing the most important piece of information, which is, what is the actual size of these pies? Who cares if the bake sale only has five percent overhead if it’s tiny? What if the bake sale only netted 71 dollars for charity because it made no investment in its scale and the professional fundraising enterprise netted 71 million dollars because it did? Now which pie would we prefer, and which pie do we think people who are hungry would prefer?


San Francisco’s Poop Problem

In this day and age it’s not hard to find an argument about the proper role of government in American society. Almost everyone agrees that government should have a significant role in public safety and national security, but even with those gimmes there’s significant disagreement about what that looks like. Throw in topics like education, public welfare, transportation, etc. and you’re going to get heated debate in any room with more than one person in it.

Still, with all that disagreement you’d think that any municipality in the country would have a pretty easy time getting its citizens behind the concept of doing whatever is necessary to keep people from pooping in public. The folks in San Francisco seem to be intent on making a mountain out of a pile of poo:

As a Mission kid, I have experienced days, even weeks, in a row when I’ve had to pull my eager dog away from steaming pancakes of human shit, or I’ve had to step over a sad, sick turd-smeared man passed out among sculpture-like piles of his own doo-doo mere feet from my doorway.However San Francisco’s poop problem isn’t confined to the streets of the Mission. Other neighborhoods ­– particularly SOMA, Mid-Market, and the Tenderloin ­– have a similar human-excrement predicament. Let’s face­­ it: if you live in the city, regardless of location or class affiliation, you’ve probably had your own encounter with the aftermath of a public number-two.

We live in a beautiful city that’s praised for its progressive values and the deeply set urban intellect of its residents. Why, then, do I find myself, on a daily basis, stepping around errant piles of fecal matter? In simpler terms, what’s with all the shit?…

It’s there for one reason, and one reason only: people needed to use the loo, and none was there for the using. And for the most part, these people are San Francisco’s massive homeless population.

There are more than 10,000 people living on the streets at any given time in our fair City by the Bay. San Francisco must be scrambling hand over foot to provide at least some semblance of a plan for their very apparent human needs. Right? Wrong.

Nice, huh? It’s not that the fair people of San Francisco aren’t thinking about the issue, but they’re having a heckuva time coming to a consensus about what to do:

Of course, like everything else in San Francisco, it turns out that potties have long been lashed to political debates. In a city that’s constantly reimagining itself, a restroom isn’t just a place to pee, after all. It’s part of a larger dialogue about who owns the public space. It’s a piece of architecture that’s at once public and intimate, where the landed gentry have to squat right alongside the city’s poor. “I think as you see a more stratified city, obviously the restrooms are gonna become more politicized,” former Supervisor Chris Daly says, remembering years of public-restroom football in City Hall.

For at least a decade, bathrooms have stood in for the city’s anxieties about homelessness, public utilities, and the changing economy. They’ve created fault lines and frenemies, they’ve cost untold millions of dollars. (The tab for this year’s renovation of a particularly infamous Portsmouth Square lavatory comes to $1.13 million). They’ve become porcelain tea leaves through which we can analyze the city’s development, and proxies for all of its battles. Scoff or turn away at the door, but it’s undeniable: Toilets have been markers for civilization since long before even the venerable coffee bar, and understanding the city now is just a flush away.

The problem is so bad that someone’s created a map of poop incidents and it has a “Report Poop” function.

So a note to all of our fine citizens here in the Piedmont Triad who interact with our municipal governments, whether it’s through volunteering to serve on various boards, committees and councils or appearing before those boards on behalf of themselves or clients and are often frustrated with the process – no matter how bad it gets just think of the folks in San Francisco and remember that things could be worse. Much worse.

Wrongful Power, Wrongfully Placed

Okay, this is two days straight that we'll get a very good civics primer from a land use blog and it comes again from Tom Terrell in a post about protest petitions:

In the American system of government, individual citizens are granted rights and freedoms, but not powers.  Rights and freedoms are actions which cannot be prohibited or controlled by a government.  In most instances, they are either (1) limitations on a government’s ability to control what we say and do or to interfere with our lives, or (2) protections of our ability to participate in democratic processes.

Powers, on the other hand, are granted only to individuals who are elected or appointed to office through controlled processes and who swear an oath to uphold the law and use their powers to serve others.  Those powers can be legislative or executive, and they are always subject to judicial review.

Such powers include the ability to pass laws, enforce laws and interpret laws.

Protest petitions run afoul of the American system of government because they aren’t rights or freedoms.  Rather, the protest petition statute grants, to an unelected citizen, the power to manipulate the decision-making authority of a duly-elected legislative body for the citizen’s personal benefit.

10 Years

This is a bit of navel gazing, but I figured I'd put it here for future reference. After 10 years of volunteering with the Town of Lewisville, first with the Zoning Board of Adjustment and then with the Planning Board, I had to step away due to other commitments in my professional and personal life. The folks on the Town Council were nice enough to give me a plaque at the January Council meeting (video below). 

It was truly an honor to work with a lot of great people.


Making a Difference

The story of Yadkinville native Nathan Harris's ordeal after being wounded in Afghanistan is told very well in this article by Susan Ladd of the Greensboro News & Record. Towards the end of the article you get to hear a little about another remarkable person who I happen to have the privilege of knowing:

His dogs didn’t get along with his mother’s dog, so he couldn’t stay there. By the time, he met Brian Sowers, Harris had moved five times in a month.

Sowers, a member of Greensboro’s Crescent Rotary Club, led the effort to provide a home for Harris through Purple Heart Homes of Statesville. The house was dedicated on Veterans Day.

“I could see from the start that he was a loving guy and appreciative of the opportunity being given him,” Sowers says. “Now, he is so much more upbeat and outgoing than when I first met him, because he knows he has a support system.”…

The Rotary Club also is helping him rebuild an independent life.

He’s gone out with club members twice this month to ring the bell for the Salvation Army. He helped serve the meal for the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club at Thanksgiving. He hopes to start volunteering soon at one of the stores.

“I’m getting there,” Harris says. “I have to keep working to get mobile enough to get a job. I want to be productive and give back, make a difference in people’s lives.”

I happen to be a member of Crescent Rotary and Brian recruited me to help out with Nathan's project, mainly because I live in Lewisville and by default was usually physically closer to where Nathan was living on a daily basis.  From my vantage point I can tell you that Nathan's new house might never have happened without Brian. The club members and other organizations like TIMCO Aviation Services and Wet 'n Wild definitely stepped up and moved mountains to raise the funds for the project, but without Brian's leadership and direction it would have either never happened or, more likely, the project would have taken twice as long to complete.  

Let me be real clear about one thing here, I didn't do a whole lot on this project other than give Nathan the occasional ride or drop off some materials for him, but even with my minimal involvement I felt privileged to be a front row witness to the difference that one motivated man can make in another's life. I didn't know Brian real well before the project began, but I got to know him over the last year and I can't tell you how proud I am to call him a friend, fellow Crescent Rotarian and a true leader. The world would be a much better place with thousands more like him.

A Revival of Compassion

*Note* – The following is a personal opinion and has nothing to do with my employer or any other organization with which I'm involved.

The Rev. Mike Aiken, Executive Director of Greensboro Urban Ministry, wrote this letter to the Greensboro News & Record:

In my nearly 40 years of ministry with the poor, I’ve never seen a more desperate time for those in need! If the Great Recession of the past several years wasn’t enough, our government is retreating from a War on Poverty in the 1960s to a War on the Poor today.

Congress continues to debate proposed massive cuts to the food stamp program. As a result of a computer glitch at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the demand for emergency food bags more than doubled overnight. With the decision not to extend unemployment benefits, 12,000 Triad families are facing homelessness. In July, Urban Ministry assisted many of these families with more than $52,000 in direct assistance. The decision of our legislature not to accept federal Medicaid funding that would cover an additional 500,000 North Carolina medically indigent residents was a major factor in the decision to close the HealthServe Medical Clinic at the end of August.

Who will stand up for the hungry and poor? “Lord, when did we see you hungry or sick?” (Matthew 25). We need a Revival of Compassion in North Carolina!

In a conversation I was having with a friend the other day the topic of the food drive organized by the organization I work for came up. Working on that food drive for the last four years has given me a closer look than many folks get at how the system for feeding the hungry works. The sheer volume of food that flows through the network is mind boggling and when you see that scale of need it doesn't take long to realize that it's not something that can be handled solely by the nonprofits out there. This isn't a guess, it's an observation: with reduced government programs people will go hungry. Not "might", "will." 

That same conversation led me to admit that for the first time in a very long while I'm extremely worried about what's going to happen to our community. This isn't hyperbole or some partisan reaction to current affairs. The cumulative effect of all the factors that Rev. Aiken outlines in his letter are going to have an immediate impact on the lives of thousands of people in our community. The burden of providing a modicum of a safety net will now fall even more heavily on the shoulders of the nonprofit community and many members of that community are facing funding cuts of their own. Unfortunately I truly think you'll start to see a wave of closures of those nonprofits as they collapse from a combination of funding cuts and increased demand. If not outright failures, then a reduction in services in an effort to survive. Either way there will be people going without and that's a tragedy. 

When Glitches Are More Than Inconvenient

Yes! Weekly is reporting on problems with a rollout of North Carolina Department of Health and Human Service's NC FAST program:

North Carolina Families Accessing Services Through Technology, which is being implemented across all 100 counties of North Carolina, is designed to integrate various social services, including food stamps, Medicaid and WorkFirst, creating a kind of "one-stop shop" for clients seeking assistance. The Forsyth County Department of Social Services calls it a "no wrong door" approach.

Beginning in early July complaints began to crop up in Forsyth County about food stamp benefits being held up for current clients applying for reactivation. A number of clients said their benefits had been delayed for months on end, and food pantries and agencies that provide free meals reported an increase in demand that was partially attributable to disruption in food stamp benefits. Those complaints were a reprise of similar concerns expressed in neighboring Guilford County where the program was piloted.

Many of us have lived through the inconvenience of a software upgrade that didn't go as smoothly as planned, or improved our lives as much as the upgrader promised, but I seriously doubt many of us have lived through such dire consequenses as the result of a systems upgrade. Combine this with the recently constrained unemployment benefits and it's apparent that we all need to be prepared to step up our game to help our local food pantries meet the spike in need in the immediate future. 

We’re Talking Downtown

Over at the NC Legal Landscapes blog attorney Tom Terrell writes about the changes proposed for High Point by consultant Andres Duany:

Duany described High Point’s furniture market as “the most complete monoculture I’ve ever seen,” adding that all it is good for is “fame and tax base.” The town is designed and constructed to support a semi-annual economic event that, in itself, causes High Point to exist on statistical ledge, waiting against an unexpected event – any event – to topple it to the canyon floor below. “If the monoculture sneezes,” Duany noted, “there is no Plan B.”

In both standing-room-only public presentations, Duany expressed amazement at the obstacle created by the “market.” “When the market is gone, the entire downtown hibernates. . . . I’ve been to many places but never to a place where all the storefronts hibernate.”

In economic terms, Duany explained that the market is a “spike,” and spikes are terrible for commerce because businesses must continually “staff up and staff down.” High Point, he marveled, has the “Everest of spikes.”

Duany’s antidote is to create a mixed use town anchored by one “hot destination” district. Since the historic downtown is unavailable for that, he recommended another area several blocks north. “All it takes is two and a half blocks to create a famous destination,” citing examples of 2-3 block famous areas all of us had heard of.

High Point also must plant trees along that stretch and engage in “road dieting,” something he described as a non-negotiable aspect of the plan. Road dieting eliminates the hostile experience of speeding traffic, creates places for parking and landscaping, and nurtures a friendly, desirable place to visit.

For those of us working on Lewisville's downtown we don't need to worry about a hibernating downtown, but we do need to worry about how a bedroom community like ours can develop a downtown that hasn't really existed before. It's amazing how similar our concerns are to High Point's, especially our desire to create an environment that "nurtures a friendly, desirable place to visit."



Who Joins Zoning Boards?

Apparently someone has studied the composition of zoning boards and has come to the conclusion that people who join them are disproportionately people who have something to gain from their service:

What kind of person would volunteer to serve on a zoning board?  It’s not exactly a lucrative position. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that a new study byJerry L. Anderson, Aaron Brees, and Emily Renninger finds that most zoning board members have something to gain from their positions.

It's shocking, SHOCKING, I tell you.  One might argue that with my job I fall into that category with my service on the Lewisville Planning Board, but I joined the Zoning Board of Adjustment and then the Planning Board before I took my current job.  In fact before I took my current job I had no experience in real estate and I had absolutely no business reason for joining the ZBOA or Planning Board.  I was, however, really interested in learning about how things worked in town and so I happily volunteered to serve.  I guess I'd add one caveat to the findings outlined above, and that is there are geeks like me out there who actually like sitting through planning sessions and find the topic interesting whether or not we benefit from the position.  Mind you there aren't many of us, but we are out there.