Thursday, February 22, 2018

Stop signs

Talking about stop signs is public discourse in miniature.  Few things are more ubiquitous than the white-on-red octagonal signs.  To engineers, they are traffic control devices governed by the MUTCD--the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

The MUTCD is exactly the thrilling page-turner you'd expect from engineers writing about inanimate objects.  A far more readable Cliff's Notes version can be found here, with the more racy title, "Speed Control in Residential Areas."

Here's an excerpt:

"Residents’ complaints are usually accompanied by a proposed solution to the speeding problem...stop signs. Traffic officials respond that stop signs installed to control speeding: (a) don’t work, (b) are frequently violated, (c) are detrimental to safety, (d) are not warranted in the Manual* and, (e) actually increase speeds between stop signs. When residents are told that stop signs are not the answer to the speeding problem, they feel they must fight city hall to get them installed. A confrontational relationship is established between residents and traffic officials and the stop sign becomes a “trophy” which is awarded to the winner of the confrontation. Solving the speeding problem becomes secondary to winning the “trophy”. The end results of this process are: (1) unhappy citizens, (2) continued complaints and requests for more stop signs, (3) increased political pressure and, (4) often, approval of stop sign installations to bring the controversy, temporarily, to an end."

Obviously, the authors have experienced the unmitigated joys of a public debate over putting stop signs at the corner of <insert random tree name> avenue and <insert random number> street.

Like the problems that occupy most of local governments' time, speeding is complex, widespread, and slippery.  And like many issues, it's only a problem when "other people" do it.  For those who doubt cosmic justice, I offer the example of the resident who was complaining most loudly about speeding in their neighborhood being the first to receive a traffic citation on the same street for <wait for it> speeding!  To add sauce to the goose, most speed studies come back showing the perceived speeding is not nearly as excessive as portrayed.

People want simple, straightforward solutions to problems they perceive.  Few pieces of painted metal are more simple and straightforward than a stop sign.  Engineers and pretty much anyone who believes in the Enlightenment prefer rational solutions to specific, real problems.  One can have an intuitive notion that stop signs make a street safer... but belief is not the same as proof.  And the expenditure of public funds and governance of public facilities--even on something as modest as a stop sign--should be governed by rational thought, engineering best practices, and scientific evidence.

The great advantage of scientific discourse is that someone eventually wins, understanding that all such victories are temporary, good only until better data, measures, or testing comes along.  We no longer argue about whether the earth is flat (well, mostly). Theological debates, on the other hand, are endless absent one side eliminating the other.  If we can't agree to follow a rational process in putting up or taking down stop signs... how much chance do we have solving much larger problems?

Pension revisited

An essay I wrote for the Maryland Reporter:

About a year ago, I wrote an essay for  suggesting the state legislature look to local governments for ideas on how to successfully manage pension systems.  Naturally, the opposite has happened.

Del. Mary Ann Lisanti of Harford County is pushing HB 971, legislation that would require local government pensions to provide a potentially budget-breaking disability benefit for some public safety employees.

Del. Lisanti’s bill is a response to a line-of-duty injury suffered by a police officer in one of Harford County’s municipalities. There’s no question that it is a situation that tugs at heart strings. It’s also the perfect example of the old legal adage: Hard cases make bad laws.

Caroline County—the state’s second poorest—has its own pension system.  After years of hard work and sacrifice, our system is stronger that the state’s. Del. Lisanti’s well-intentioned effort to benefit a single individual will have a profound effect on thousands of local government employees including ours.

Our actuaries are crunching numbers now, but there’s no doubt the new benefit will be expensive, not only to provide but to administer.  The smaller the pension system, the greater the impact.  The reasons are much same as why small counties cannot afford to self-insure for worker’s compensation.  With a small pool of employees, even one or two unanticipated claims can dramatically increase costs.  The inherent volatility and disproportionately high administrative costs makes self-insuring impractical.

If HB 971 is passed, Caroline County faces the prospect of having to increase what employees pay into the pension, cutting spending to pay a larger employer share, and/or restructuring pension benefits for future retirees.  Since about 75% of our annual budget is dictated by state mandates, we have few options—none appealing.

The bill also backdates the benefit to 2015, presumably to benefit Delegate Lisanti’s constituent.  This is problematic not only for pension funds, but for bond rating agencies.  How can those agencies evaluate our creditworthiness if financial mandates can be imposed ex post facto?

We understand the issue.  We already provide long-term disability insurance at no cost to our employees.  We are working towards other solutions we can afford, and not just for public safety employees.  After all, other workers can be left disabled due to a work-related injury. They deserve no less consideration.

Whatever we do must be financially responsible.  It’s laudable that Del. Lisanti wants local government pensions to match the lavish benefits promised by Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Pension System (LEOPS).  The unflattering reality, however, is that state has woefully underfunded LEOPS despite an employer share of nearly 40 cents for every dollar in wages.  By comparison, the employer share for Caroline’s fiscally sustainable pension system is less than 12 cents.

It is tempting but would be intemperate to suggest the Maryland legislature fix its own pension systems before dictating how we should manage ours.  My request is more measured.  Give local pension officials time to do the actuarial work necessary to determine the impact.  It is unconscionable to ignore the plight of workers disabled in the line of duty, but no less so to blindly force local governments to make pension promises we cannot afford to keep.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Why do natural disasters often bring out the best in people...

and the worst in local governments?

Another dispatch from the post-Hurricane Irma mess comes from Green Cove Springs, Florida.  According to Clay Today, city officials rousted a food truck driver who wanted to provide food including FREE meals for anyone in a utility vehicle.

Why?  Someone apparently complained and Mayor Mitch Timberlake agreed saying that the food truck operator should have asked the City first.

In response, I cannot improve on the account artfully provided by Clay Today:

"Had Roundtree decided to press his case at City Hall, he would have been greeted with a sign that read: “Due to Hurricane Irma, City Hall offices and services will re-open on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017.”

Local attorney John Whiteman happened to take a photograph of the sign on the glass door, fully reflecting the blue skies-sunshiny day. “Not the best message because it gives the impression that no one's working when I'm certain that wasn't true,” Whiteman said, speculating that the city’s administrative leaders were ensconced in the security of the police station for the duration of the emergency, thus avoiding having to communicate with the general public about things such as food truck permits."

In the aftermath of a major storm in a community where the local McDonald's ran out of food at 2 p.m., city officials found the time to dispatch law enforcement to give the bum's rush to a small business meeting a community need.  I can only imagine what might have happened to an enterprising 10-year-old who opened a lemonade stand.  I presume nothing less than the SWAT team in full tactical gear would have sufficed to protect the interests of the local beverage industry.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A lemonade stand by any other name...

According to News &7 Miami, code enforcement officers in Miami-Dade County began issuing warning citations to property owners only hours after Hurricane Irma passed.

The report quotes Celso Perez saying:

“At the time this officer was out here, we didn’t have power, we didn’t have food, we didn’t have ice. He is crazy, ridiculous. The mayor said that the county would help us recover from the storm and were there to help us. Before the county picks up the debris, the code enforcement guy will beat them to it and some for having my fence down, write me a ticket or something. I’m mad, very upset about this.”

Perez' response is not surprising or unusual.  It is the same reaction one sees when local authorities declare war on a lemonade stand.  The issue became pervasive enough to wind up on the pages of the National Review.

What is it that causes local government officials to apparently lose any semblance of common sense?  Is it as simple as NR's Kevin D. Williamson concluding, "We are ruled by power-mad buffoons."

Having known many well-intended (though occasionally ham-handed) enforcement officials, I don't think this is the Madness of King George.  Part of the problem is incentives.  Success in code enforcement is normally measured by the metric of "fixing problems."  This incentivizes seeing things as problems.

There are time when an incentive is financial.  In Delaware, local jurisdictions keep the money from traffic citations.  In Maryland, the fines are remitted to the state government.  Where do you think it is more likely to be let off with warning?  Incentives matter.  Always.

Incentives also can be cultural.  Harkening back to the Miami-Dade example, what do code enforcement officers do?  They enforce codes.  What if the job title was changed to "Regulation Navigators"?  What if building inspectors became construction facilitators?  What if the focus shifted from enforcing a set of rules towards helping residents accomplish goals within a structure?

Until we figure this out, we'll continue to see lemonade stands shut down by overzealous officials.  And with every heartbroken four-year-old, the public trust in local government will further diminish.

From Judge Learned Hand's "Spirit of Liberty" speech

"I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it."

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Intellectual Honesty

One of the most important qualities a city manager or county administrator can possess is intellectual honesty.  For a broader perspective, this list of "ten signs of intellectual honesty" may be useful.

To be intellectually honest, we have to admit 1) we exist within a culture; 2) this culture influences us; 3) we don't know how the culture influences us; 4) we all are guilty of confirmation bias.

In my experience, the vast majority of city managers and county administrators are devoted public servants.  We all strive to lead local governments that are engaged, responsive, transparent, and ethical.  We believe in the power of government to do good and stand prepared for the moments a community sees a problem and decides, "We must do something!" 

We rally.  We inspire.  We support.  We agree that something must be done and to dedicate ourselves to doing it!

The danger for local government leaders is failing to recognize that the "something" may be worse than doing nothing.  Working shoulder-to-shoulder with kind, caring, and dedicated public employees can be terrifically exciting, meaningful, and fulfilling.  With so many intelligent and devoted people working so selflessly... how could we possibly fail?

And yet local government often does.

Intellectual honesty requires us to ask tough questions and not be content with the "echo chamber" answers we often receive from our fellow professionals (or professional associations).  As a profession, public administration would benefit by asking "Why?" far more often, and exploring the possible answers without so many preconceived notions (including that of our own nobility).

It's a tough time for intellectual honesty in America.  Public discourse is dominated by hyper-partisan rhetoric.  Far too many individuals in positions of responsibility--in government and the Fourth Estate--seem to have abandoned even a passing commitment to facts or truth.  There is a palpable sense that large swaths of the body politic have simply given up on expecting intellectual honesty from anyone in power.

City managers and county administrators can be advocates for intellectual honesty, but only if we begin with our own profession.

A tough gig

Anyone who thinks serving as city manager or county administrator is "just another job" might benefit from reading this article from the Tacoma New Tribune.

One cannot blame the reporters--Derrick Nunnally and Candice Ruud--for the headline, " Will Tacoma’s next city manager be a downgrade?"  Unless something has changed since I studied journalism in the 80s, copy editors write headlines.

I will take Nunnally and Ruud to task for going with an "if it bleeds, it leads" approach to writing an article.  Particularly disappointing is the observation, "During the past three years, three of the four (finalists for the Tacoma city manager job) have applied to manage cities smaller than Tacoma and been passed over."

Neither Nunnally nor Ruud have any idea why a given candidate was not offered a position.  They did not participate in the interviews or the subsequent discussions.  They do not know who the competing candidates were (internal or external) or how those candidates performed in their interviews.  There are numerous reasons a person might be "passed over" for a job opportunity that have no bearing on a candidate's qualifications.

This is just another example of the tired bias--bigger is better.  I will cut Nunnally and Ruud a bit of slack because they exist in the world of journalism where writers aspire to larger media outlets.  As a profession, journalism tends to see working for the Washington Post or New York Times as superior to the Tacoma New Tribune.

Tenure in a larger organization--whether that is a newspaper or a local government--is not a reliable indicator of talent.  The hiring process is far to subjective to draw any conclusions.  This is particularly true for city managers and county administrators where elected officials make the final decision.  An unsuccessful candidacy should not be held against a person regardless of their field.

Read more here:

Stop signs

Talking about stop signs is public discourse in miniature.  Few things are more ubiquitous than the white-on-red octagonal signs.  To engine...