A Few Minutes with the Mayor, February 2014 – by Paul Becker
New Year’s Eve 2013 marked the end of my third year as mayor, an occupation which seemed most improbable to me when growing up—it was a different world back then. This thought crossed my mind while recently watching an old Hopalong Cassidy film. It was one of those cowboy soap operas where the bad guy was carrying sticks of dynamite and a detonator to blow up a dam. Could Hoppy stop him? Audiences of the day would lean forward in their seats as the music reached a crescendo, munch on their popcorn just a little faster, and hope for the best. Not to worry! Hoppy winds up saving the dam. It was a simple story for a simpler time.
Jacksonville is the sad possessor of a dam… the one up in Forest Park. Sad, because the dam is in deplorable condition with silt deposits built-up behind it where water was once stored. The dam could be restored but Jacksonville gave-up all water rights decades ago. Now, the city is spending sums of money to, in essence, “blow up the dam.” In other words, restore the terrain so the water can resume its pathway down the hill. It sounds simple, but it isn’t.
When Hoppy made that movie, life was simple… just blow up the dam and walk away from it. All perfectly legal then, but not today! With jurisdiction over this dam, federal and state agencies number an astounding number of eleven, each with rules and regulations that must be adhered to. What might have been a simple task becomes an engineering project. Fortunately, we set aside money from the M.R.A. land swap for this very purpose. However, to be honest, this story isn’t about the dam… it’s about bureaucracy, a form of organized endeavor that affects us all, the very antithesis of democracy. Yet, this far into the 21st century, we find ourselves embracing ever-larger bureaucratic forms of government. The federal TSA, which guards us in our airports, has now grown to 67,000 people. It isn’t just the cost of the screening agents… add payroll clerks, accountants, office staff, managers, legal help, and sundry other people and materials… the sheer size of it brings other problems.
Oscar Wilde said, “Bureaucracy expands to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.” Even more cynical is the quote from an anonymous source, “Any sufficiently advanced bureaucracy is indistinguishable from molasses.” There was a time when most Americans seemed to understand that simply because something grows larger doesn’t mean it operates better or more efficiently. I’m not so sure they feel that way today. When something becomes “too big to fail” is it then an asset or a liability? What I do know is that all bureaucracies develop a maze of rules and regulations supposedly designed to support the service they provide. There are rules for this and rules for that. The rules become a bible… one that seldom adjusts to the changes in the world around it.
When the city acquired the courthouse, I understood we would have to do a seismic study of the building before we actually moved any offices into it. Imagine my astonishment when I learned that using the building for government operations and not for public access meant that no seismic study was necessary!
Let the building collapse on the mayor, administrator, and city staff… well… that’s OK. Ah, the logic of bureaucratic minds!
Now don’t get me wrong. I understand that with the huge and ever-growing size of the federal government, there is no escape from the elephant in the room, the bureaucratic nightmare which larger government brings. Knowing this only makes me appreciate all the more our small town that provides the antidote against home-grown bureaucratic ills. Here, one can make inquiries and actually talk to someone in charge. Here, we are ready to talk to any citizen who needs information or has suggestions to improve our service. And that’s the reason we exist… to serve our citizens.
Posted January 28, 2014