Healthy Cities: A Model for Community Improvement

By Clark, Doug | Public Management, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Healthy Cities: A Model for Community Improvement


Clark, Doug, Public Management


Local government managers and councils increasingly face pressures to address issues not traditionally assigned to localities. Citizens want education improved, child care made available, gangs eliminated, homelessness abated, drug and alcohol abuse reduced, and air and water quality made safe. Local residents no longer tolerate the "passing the buck" answer, that these issues are the responsibilities of some other jurisdiction. When this kind of response is given, it simply reinforces citizens' alienation and distrust: "There they go again! Unwilling to find an answer. Bureaucratic runaround."

When we skirt responsibility for the overall quality of life in our communities and ignore our roles in prevention, frequently the results are simplistic solutions: enforce truancy laws, adopt daytime curfews, arrest gang members, move the homeless on to the next city, implement more sobriety checkpoints, take public inebriates to the county drunk tank.

In isolation, some of these programs may be effective, but most are labor-intensive and simply add to the growing cost of law enforcement. If current trends continue, many communities will find their budgets consumed by public safety expenditures. Besides the high costs they generate, many of these solutions are simply "aspirins" that do not cure the ailment but only mask the symptoms. We might feel better if more police are hired, but public officials are realizing that a police officer on every corner will not solve all the problems in our communities. When the effects of the aspirin wear off, we still are left with the migraine.

Adding to the complexity of the issues is a host of challenges that have been thrown at communities and their managers. At the same time that citizens want more solutions to quality-of-life issues, state and federal support systems are being abandoned or severely curtailed. Congress "solved" the welfare problem. It passed a law, and the consequences landed on the doorstep of city hall. Congress "solved" the issue of equal access for the disabled. It passed a law, and the costs landed on the doorstep of city hall.

Problems and solutions are being pushed down to the local level, most often without an award of the corresponding resources. Rules, regulations, and procedures are handed down in abundance from state and federal governments. Funds and support are an entirely different matter. With few exceptions, local governments are facing other budget constraints at the very time that state and federal resources are becoming extinct. These financial woes, coupled with rising citizen expectations, often have resulted in frustrations' being expressed through taxpayer revolts, defeats of bond measures, and initiatives to require expanded voter review of local spending. The vicious cycle continues.

Issues are becoming increasingly complex. Solutions require multijurisdictional and cross-sector (voluntary, private, government) solutions. Can we, or should we, attempt to solve gang and juvenile delinquency issues without involving schools, families, the faith community, the chamber of commerce, local nonprofits, county agencies, or surrounding communities? Complex issues are requiring new skills, new models, and new forums for solutions. Working outside the traditional environment is not only becoming an increasingly common mode but a professional necessity.

Opportunities

During the ascendancy of state and federal systems, we in local government lamented the lack of local control. These distant bureaucracies did not understand our local needs, unique circumstances, local history, and culture. Their "one size fits all" solutions were wrong for localities. Laws were written for a central city and did not apply to a suburban jurisdiction. Water quality provisions were modeled after the shallow Atlantic Ocean shelf but not the deep Pacific Ocean model. We yearned for the good old days of local control. Echoing the old adage of being careful what you wish for, we now find ourselves with more local control than some of us may have wanted. …

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