Sustainable Cronyism?

August 14, 2007 5 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Cronyism and the City's new Sustainable Communities Department

A new Planning Agency for Jacksonville? (And why should anyone care?)

    As most readers of this website may know, the Mayor has proposed that the city's planning department, along with housing, neighborhoods, animal care and control, and environmental quality be reorganized into a new "Sustainable Communities" agency. [See "Peyton's $65 million answer" in the Florida Times-Union for Tuesday, July 17.] While such a reorganization does make a good bit of conceptual sense in terms of how these agencies (with their multiple overlapping jurisdictions and missions) might evolve better coordinated agendas in the future, it begs the larger question of whether or not the overall agenda of community planning and urban design will be advanced here in Jacksonville.

    Of particular concern is toward what ends such a new, consolidated department will be managed and what policy agendas it will promulgate and support. Indeed, for those of us who have followed the history of planning in Jacksonville over many decades, perhaps the primary question to ask about this proposed change is whether it will help to create a more "normal" and rational community planning process here in Jacksonville, or will it end up further marginalizing the work products of our existing planning staff?

    Viewed from this perspective, the most salient question is whether professionally trained planners (and particularly those with strong backgrounds in environmental science, architecture, and urban design) will be allowed to have more meaningful, policy making oversight in terms of how Jacksonville goes about setting its agenda for the future -- or -- will they continue in their historic role as (mostly) the facilitators of special interest, private sector development agendas? At an even more basic level, does planning as a well established academic discipline (drawing from its traditional roots in both the natural sciences and the canons of artistic design) really have anything of value to contribute to the art of self-government and decision making here in this community? Or, are planners just "paid technicians and facilitators" who should have no input at all into city policy making?

    This, I suggest, is the real issue that is facing Jacksonville's elected officials, and the creation of a newly revamped Planning/Community Development Agency merely highlights the importance of getting a straight response.

Drawing a line in the sand - Standing up for professionalism in Jacksonville

    Sadly, instead of the prospect of a more dynamic community planning agency that is "in the loop" in terms of agenda setting and policy making, we are now faced with the prospect of having two untrained, non-planners who can hardly be expected to have any insight about what creative planning can actually do for the City of Jacksonville, let alone what policies they ought to be lobbying for* Now, in addition to Mayor Peyton's recently hired Director of Planning -- who has no planning degree and virtually no experience in this field -- the Mayor has announced that he wants to anoint yet another of his personal friends (who, as I understand it, can claim only her recent appointed position in the City's housing agency as relevant "experience" for this job) to head up the new Sustainable Communities Department. Whatever her good qualities may be, this person apparently has NO training of any kind in planning or community development and appears to be less than fully qualified to work anywhere in this new department, let alone to head it up!

    *The present debacle with respect to JTA, the Planning Department, and the S-Line transit corridor is the perfect example of a failed planning function. The question is, can the City of Jacksonville LEARN anything from this?

    That a person totally without qualifications would be presented as the "best" possible choice to head up the Sustainable Communities agency is so transparently absurd that -- in ordinary circumstances -- one would properly understand it as little more than the rather ill conceived trial balloon that it may be. Here in Jacksonville, however, we are supposed to take this kind of offhand announcement as a "done deal," say "aw, shucks, I guess that she won't actually hurt anything," and publicly congratulate ourselves on what a wonderful choice the Mayor has made. (Sort of like what happens in Cuba, except that here in River City we seem to be "building cronyism," not socialism...) The worst thing is, nobody will publicly question the propriety of all of this, least of all the many real professionals who struggle as best they can to work in this king of toxic, increasingly politicized environment.

    Moreover, based on this proposed new appointment as well as his former choice for department head, the Mayor seems to view planning even more as a purely "facilitative" agency -- with all of its most fundamental agendas dictated from OUTSIDE the department by a small clique of power brokers and political camp followers -- than even his most ardent backers in the development community. Rather than seeking out someone with a vision of what planning might do in this community (and who is trained in the philosophy and methodologies of planning), the Mayor seems to be going out of his way to reinforce the concept that here in Jacksonville, personal friendships (and cozy, under the table arrangements) will always trump professionalism and the public's welfare.

    And this -- in a nutshell -- perfectly illustrates the present dilemma that we face here in this community. Rather than having a rational discussion about how to go about finding the best possible person to head up the city's new planning/community development agency (and openly discussing what new directions a reorganized planning function here in Jacksonville might take), we are instead talking about finding a few people with enough gumption, guts, and professional integrity to simply say "No more!" to this kind of blatant cronyism and cynical disregard for the public's trust. [Boys and girls, can you say that it is simply CRAZY to appoint someone totally without qualifications to head up a city department as important and vital to our future as this one? Can you say this like you really MEAN it this time to the elected officials who supposedly represent your interests? And, finally, is there something inside of you that suggests that you aren't going to take this kind of insulting, degrading, and demeaning treatment from "the powers that be at City Hall" anymore without at least putting up some kind of a decent fight?]

    With the media spotlight -- and maybe a grand jury investigation -- turned on the Mayor's latest dubious accomplishments in creative cronyism (i.e., the developing ProLogic/IT Department scandal), this is probably the perfect time to go on the offensive and demand as loudly as we can that we get someone better and more qualified to head up this new agency. Certainly, we will have some support for this on the City Council, and perhaps wide support in the local media. It would be nice if local chapters of the AIA and the APA would also show some courage in this area, but it is an ugly and well known fact that anyone who dares to "rock the boat" in River City will be "punished," and his or her career potentially damaged. [But isn't this alone enough reason for local professionals to finally stand up and fight these cynical grifters, especially when we might actually win a few rounds?]  

    One thing for certain, we will never know if we don't try.

Milt Hays, Jr.
Jacksonville, FL