Friday, January 21, 2022

Mid-Sized Meditations #23: What a City Council Majority in a Mid-Sized City Can Do

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Last week I wrote in a political-sciencey vein about the significance and implications (mostly positive, I think, but also partly negative) of the new Democratic majority which the very--if not officially--partisan city elections of 2021 gave Wichita. This week I want to throw out some ideas regarding what that city council majority could and, I think, should do.

I write this fully aware that the limits upon their possible actions, even beyond whatever disagreements may derail their supposedly shared partisan priorities, are pretty significant. Leaving aside the restrictions regularly placed upon the cities of Kansas by our state’s officially affirmed but only rarely enforced principle of “Home Rule”, there is also the fact that under the council-manager system which Wichita has (as opposed to the strong-mayor system which most of our peer cities have embraced), the ability to research new concerns, respond to citizen complaints, or act in a genuinely representative capacity towards the constituents in their districts is constrained by the simple fact that it is the city manager, and the staff which works for him, that handles the essential details of the city’s budget, the implementation rules for city policies, and the specific direction of city resources. This means the council can propose, debate, table, ratify, or oppose, but not, in any truly active sense, govern. (The fate of the Wichita Ice Center, a major item of business at this week’s city council meeting, is illustrative of this dynamic: there were years of complaints about the poor management of the facility as the city’s staff reviewed various options, including at one point including selling it off—something city council members only learned about when reporters asked them about it—and only finally presenting a plan to bring back the prior managers at the same time a possible new private ice facility, partly financed by city-backed STAR bonds, is being kicked around. The predictable left hand, right hand comments are hard to avoid.)

Still, as Mayor Whipple demonstrated by recognizing a lacuna in city civil rights policies and pushing through a city-wide non-discrimination ordinance ( however convoluted that push was), the power to propose, debate, etc., can be significant, if you pick your battles carefully. A city council, even under a council-manager system, even in a state whose legislature usually guards its prerogatives expansively, can appoint or dismiss, direct or re-direct, declare or ignore, issues and legislation and committees and funding in some pretty creative ways—assuming they have the unity to do so. Lacking that unity, the most a city council will likely be able to do (especially when it is the city staff that mostly oversees the flow of information and options) is to just let the loudest speakers in and around city hall get their way--which, throughout North America and definitely here in Wichita, has typically been land developers, playing their role in the American urban growth machine. I’d like to see this new majority resist that, to become a voting block that can resist the machine, uniting with other perspectives and plans already present on the council—the Places for People agenda being an obvious example--and acting in ways less enamored of the false promise of growth (which isn’t happening to our city in any real sense anyway) and more focused on civic strength.

Nearly three months ago—before anyone knew if the city elections would turn out the way they did—Friends University, where I work, hosted an all-day event titled “Rethinking Wichita.” The event featured multiple speakers from around Wichita, and break-out sessions to discuss the presentations they gave, all building up to a keynote address by Charles Marohn, the founder and guiding thinker and organizer behind Strong Towns, a group dedicated to pointing out the fiscally unsustainable and environmentally harmful practices which most North American cities routinely fall into, and suggesting ways in which we can make our towns and cities more resilient: stronger, in a word. I’ve recommended Chuck’s work to our city council before, tried to apply his insights to questions of local development here in Wichita, and was gratified that one member, Bryan Frye, was there throughout the entire event. (Both former member Cindy Claycomb and Maggie Ballard, the newly elected member who replaced her, attended part of the event, and another, Becky Tuttle, had planned to attend but family responsibilities kept her away.)

While Strong Towns emphasizes it isn’t a political movement, they’ve recognized from the beginning the necessary role of city government leaders in making a move towards a genuine (which is invariably local, ground-up, organic, and slow) development of civic strength. This is one reason why regularly they highlight the diverse stories of leaders from multiple cities—New Castle, PA; Cedar Falls, IA; Bothell, WA; Edmonton, Alberta; Costa Mesa, CA—all making incremental changes in how their local governments operate, how they work around with (or around) the legal limitations placed upon them, and how they push for changes in the built and social environments which make their cities worth living in. To be sure, every city is unique, and Wichita’s mid-sized, “mittelpolitan” characteristics, while widely shared across North America, present challenges which most of the above cities (which are either a) much smaller than Wichita, or b) part of urban agglomerations which are much larger) present some particular challenges. But if the responses from the break-out sessions following each of the presenters at the Rethinking Wichita conference are any indication, there really are certain actions which city council members could feel confident in making part of their agenda. While each of the presentations (premised specifically on the questions of “living,” “playing,” “working,” and “moving” in Wichita) are filled with ideas which our new city council members should ponder (so please, watch them all), let me bring some specific suggestions together by summarizing some of the dominant responses we received..

Angela Perez, the Executive Director of the Urban League of Kansas, gave a presentation on “living in Wichita,” which summarized the city’s demographics and its accomplishments, as well as many of the criticisms and concerns which those living in this city have. One major theme in the responses to her presentation was that many Wichitans carry a set of expectations with them when they interact with city hall: expectations that the city will be unresponsive, or that one's interactions with it will be characterized by poor communication and constant meetings, making it unlikely that the city will be able to take advantage of, or even properly recognize, the momentum which emerges from citizen efforts. This, in the view of several participants, has a self-fulfilling, depressing effect. Their feeling was that so long as many Wichitans' remain focused on the city's history of delayed projects, failed plans, and petitions which made no difference, assumptions about our city government’s indecisiveness, insularity, and small-c conservative opposition to citizen action will stick around.

Changing perceptions is no easy task, and Perez didn’t pretend to have a guaranteed path to doing so. But her presentation of life in Wichita, shaped by her long experience with non-profits, with their participatory boards and neighborhood outreach practices, inspired multiple respondents to point towards one possible, and probably essential, route to challenging those expectations: the promise of transparency, in the sense of their being 1) clearly defined and openly available decision-making processes, and 2) evidence that the results of those decisions are being acted upon, as soon as possible. This echoes, probably without anyone intending it, a Strong Towns mantra when it comes to public engagement: first, listen to what people are specifically concerned about; second, determine what is the smallest and most politically feasible thing that can be done to alleviate, even minimally, that concern; third, do that thing immediately; fourth, repeat the process. Transparency was a major promise of Mayor Whipple when he ran for office, and he’s been able to get the city to take some important steps in that regard, such as the creation of an Ethics Advisory Board. But seeing as how that board still isn’t fully staffed, with no clear procedures yet articulated for how citizens can see the board responding to specific requests or complaints, there is clearly much work the city council to do here.

Kate Nance, a clinical researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center with a MA in Sociology, focused her “playing in Wichita” presentation on public art and the way cities attempt to create intentional spaces for recreation and creativity. Her presentation inspired many comments about how narrow most Wichitans’ awareness is of the enormous amount of public art in the city; in particular, her comments on the tendency of cities—most definitely including Wichita—to think, when it comes to architecture and installation artworks, that “creatives” need to be imported from someplace else led several to focus on the need to make sure that local artists and the neighborhood stakeholders who encourage them and are the primary audience for their work are central to the creative work which is the city supports.

One point that the city council could take away from this is a willingness to put the brakes on the enthusiasm some have for “placemaking.” Artistic events and opportunities can certainly be planned, but the places where they happen, unless you’re talking about a very particular, time-bound event (say, the city’s wonderful Open Streets ICT programming), should be genuine outgrowths of the artistic, civic, and entrepreneurial work of the people who already live in and belong in those neighborhoods. Setting aside specific locales for creative work, even with subsidies (which always have rules associated with them) attached, risks reducing artists to disposable tokens, which locals often feel no connection with or obligation to support. The public art and murals of Wichita are genuinely impressive, and the result of long-standing civic support; the key is to remember that long-term perspective, Nance’s respondents emphasized (Councilmember Brandon Johnson’s focus on the fate of statue associated with the Dockum Drug Store protests located in Chester I. Lewis park in downtown Wichita is a good example).

Laura Lombard, President of Kansas Global Trade Services, took up the topic of “working in Wichita,” and in many ways built upon and extended the ideas presented by the previous two speakers, looking at how Wichita’s demographics and amenities both play into the perennial question which a mid-sized, geographically stand-alone city, dependent--as Wichita is and always has been--on connecting with the flow (once primarily national; now also global) of people and trade and investment: how to get businesses and workers and those with money to notice Wichita? Several respondents drew from her insightful observations about Wichita’s “brand” the conclusion that, as appealing as Wichita’s low cost of living and overall “affordability” is for many prospective workers and entrepreneurs, it may also unintentionally communicate the (unfortunately often true) message that Wichita is a city where everyone prefers to do things on the cheap. This arguably makes it harder to generate civic enthusiasm on the part to those with resources already in our city, not to mention tending to get us to focus too much on hopes for various saviors and investors coming to offer us deals.

You’d think our recent history with real estate promises that fall apart would make city hall more resistant to builders with transformative plans, but the machine-like logic of these appeals to growth are difficult to resist. Lombard acknowledged the need to always be open to unexpected changes and opportunities (though the pandemic-inspired switch to remote work, however worth exploring, is unlikely to do much for Wichita, as this exchange between Charles Marohn and the urban sociologist Richard Florida explains well), but instead mostly—and I think wisely—focused on projects more amenable to the Wichita’s middling place in the global winner-take-all urban race. The responses to her presentation accordingly focused upon diverse and often inventive ways to 1) build up the cultural, technological, and recreational resources already present in our neighborhoods, making them more appealing for young people and new arrivals considering putting down roots, and 2) increase the integration between those community hubs and area schools and businesses, particularly mid-sized manufacturing and tech firms which we already have a solid foundation for (even though the pipeline with union organizing and guarantees is unfortunately now mostly absent). Given that participation on the District Advisory Boards of city council members tends to skew (in the view of some respondents, anyway) in a professional direction, ensuring that the DABs are attentive to potential connections with often young manufacturing and tech workers in Wichita’s neighborhoods is something the new youthful majority on the city council ought to make a priority.

The last speaker, Chase Billingham, a sociologist at Wichita State, is well known for his close attention to the basic infrastructure of Wichita’s built environment and the constant arguments over it, and his presentation on “moving in Wichita” did not disappoint. He demonstrated in fine detail that the city of Wichita has consistently under-funded and thus depressed total use of public transportation (even when compared to cities much smaller than us) and at the same time consistently invested enormous amounts in improving automobile traffic (particularly Kellogg, as Alex Pemberton has demonstrated), with the result, Billingham concluded, that Wichita arguably has the least amount of traffic congestion of any city on the planet Earth. A great accomplishment for the automobile friendly! But perhaps also one that our city council could use as an excuse to declare victory and focus the funds they have any say over elsewhere.

The responses to Billingham’s conclusive presentation were smartly realistic, focusing on small changes (such as identifying--not creating in accordance with some top-down plan—those places where access to reliable, short-distance, free bus routes, along the model of the Q-Line, might actually result in real changes in local transportation patterns, in a way that the city’s somewhat grandiose proposed multimodal transit center and parking garage in Delano probably won’t). Again echoing arguments made by Marohn, several break-out session participants observed that agreeing to major infrastructure and transportation projects in the hopes of securing state or national dollars, however necessary sometimes, both tends to sap the political will for harder, longer-term, local projects, as well as rarely resulting in receiving enough money to actually do the job in question. (In that light, note that mere weeks after celebrating the end of construction on Kellogg after 30 years, the state revealed that money from the new federal infrastructure law made it possible to get to work on the admittedly somewhat tight Kellogg K-96 interchange…which in turn was soon followed by the announcement that cost increases necessitated Wichita’s contribution to that upgrade to increase as well. No one should blame the city council for all lining up in support of paying that extra bill, but as federal infrastructure money flows, remember that this was surely not the last surprise cost increase that Wichita will end up confronting.) Accordingly, the call to the city council’s majority needs to be: think and work small. Our overwhelming car-centric city won’t because more fiscally sustainable and environmentally friendly overnight, so cultivating where possible a culture of small-scale, local alternatives is the right start.

I could go into Marohn’s wonderful keynote address at the conference, but as it mostly involved a presentation of the big picture of civic strength in American cities (though he did throw in a trenchant comment about the obvious lack of need or demand—aside from the usual assortment of land- and business-owners, developers, and boosters—the proposed Northwest Bypass from K-96 to Goddard), I’ll instead just encourage everyone to just watch it and read the book it was based upon. Insofar as the new majority on the Wichita city council is concerned, the collected and condensed recommendations which came out of the Rethinking Wichita conference suggest, at the very least, an orientation worth unifying around: one of procedural transparency, neighborhood engagement, democratic inclusion, and multiple, frequent, small-scale fiscal commitments. The aim, I think, should be making Wichita a city more willing and able, however much state laws and structural limitations permit, to listen directly to citizens, set locally appropriate goals in response, and then promptly execute them. How to go about that will obviously depend on the specifics of each situation (though re-opening conversations about the size of city council districts, term limits on the council, and the type of representation the council provides wouldn’t be a bad general start), but the result would hopefully be a city whose citizens think enough of its collective capacity to provide genuine common goods to decide that it’s worth taking seriously, fighting over, and paying for. Here’s hoping!