At the end of my own personal time trial (bike race against the clock), I was standing in the grass looking at my breakfast. Colorful. I sat down to rest a bit and reflected on just how hard that effort was. After a bit I got back up, climbed on my bike and headed home. You know that I do most of my thinking on the bike and, as I was cruising down Winters Branch, I started thinking about a managed, proactive way to get Manassas up off her butt. I recognize the incongruity of this opening salvo but hard efforts make my brain work. Some people walk or pace or go to the mountains but I climb on my bike and go.
As I was rolling along, rehashing in my head what I thought about things I decided that I needed to put all of it in writing. I've said many of the things I'm going to write now in retreats and in private but never here. Writing forces the truth out of your head and onto the page. When I meet folks who are just starting their businesses I ask "do you have a business plan"? Inevitably the answer is
yes but when I ask to see it they point to their head. Let me share with you an immutable interstellar maxim: if your plan, of whatever sort, is in your head you have no plan. You haven't had to rectify your plan for success with the truth of words on paper. Enough stalling:
If you were to look at the City Councils "Priorities and Implementation Plan" you would find 6 bullets in there. It's all pretty good stuff. There's a big focus on Economic Development – more than any other section – but we don't have an ED department yet (Indeed, the 5 year forecast we just passed has an $800k hole in it and there's already discussion of cutting the ED department from next years budget). It's interesting that there is a section on schools. Now, I participated in the process that helped write that plan but even when we were grinding our way through the retreat where we wrote the plan, I didn't think it was the right approach, It was meant to give guidance to the staff and it accomplished that but our plan to move the city forward is simply re-chewed gum. Not much flavor and kinda nasty. There isn't anything in there that we haven't tried before at some level.
Indeed, the elephant in the room is that our government has not changed to fit the current reality of life in Manassas. This being the case, the same solutions continue to get dragged out of the closet. Put differently, when you're a hammer, every problem is a nail. We made progress when we started the program with the Boys & Girls club but that lasted less than a year before being shot in the head and dumped in a vacant lot. That was actually a bit of urban thinking and would have made a difference. To this point in time, the enduring response of the City government to the vast changes in our city have been purely enforcement. More Police and more zoning/building inspectors. No doubt we need these things but will they, of their own accord, solve the problems we have? Have they yet?
So the bottom line becomes how do we figure out what to do? The key to the solution is for the Council to get out of City Hall and get a clearer idea of the will of the governed. Not just the ones that show up week in and week out or the ones we know – as many as possible. To that end, here's what I think we should do: do the same thing we did with the CIP. Take our existing plan and bring it to the public. You want new thinking about what the city should look like? Involve our citizenry in every nook and cranny of the City. 40%-ish of our residents are Latino folks. They weren't there for the CIP process but they need to be there for this. Appoint a strategic planning committee to take all of that input and distil it down for Council input. Take that product and come up with a fundamentally new vision for the city.
This may not seem all that radical but let me ask you this: What do you think is going to happen to our current plan when people who have, heretofore, not been involved in government tear into it. Frankly, I don't think our plan reflects our community very well and forcing the process into the hands of our residents is going to produce a very different product.
Why do I think this will work? Our CIP process was a well-run but relatively modest undertaking on the public meeting side. However, I'll never forget walking into that first meeting, seeing all of those people and hearing another Council member say: "where did all of this come from"? I understood his concern – I'm supposed to be the idea guy but it immediately concerned me that all of "these people" were involved in "our stuff"! This is stuff that the Council handles during late night meetings when nobody wants to show up. I was very worried but I shouldn't have been. The outcome of that process may not have been what this or that person wanted but I have not a single doubt that the Council could have ever gotten to such a piece of work without the direct and significant involvement of our citizens. We need to do that same process again and enlist our citizens help to fundamentally change what our government does and how it does it.
There, that doesn't sound so bad does it? Oh amigos, this going to be far harder than CIP. See, CIP was really about money. You may not have wanted to spend that money but if the CIP plan went through, the most difficult thing that was going to happen was road construction, new buildings, etc. This deal is all about re-aligning the city's organization and mission with the needs of our current residents. There is only a finite amount of space in the City. If we do an honest needs assessment the uses currently in place for our parks and other public facilities are likely to change. You're not talking about upgrading what's there – you're talking about taking something away and putting in something different. That's going to be hard but it s what I think we need to do.