Accountability Missing From Elected Officials
At one time in my life, I worked for a large homebuilder. They would spend a rather fabulous amount of money on advertising/marketing. They would usually employ a marketing firm to help them spend their money. The sales people would be quizzed to some extent by the marketing people and if our answers agreed with their ideas we were hailed as geniuses, if not, we were told we didn’t understand marketing, or worse, that we were negative. For example, If the marketers decided to run an ad campaign on a country western radio station because our company’s type of house represented “family values” and you pointed out that you had never sold a home in your market to anyone that listens to country western music and that most of your buyers are single, you would be considered a negative sales person or an idiot. Being seen as a negative sales person is not a good thing. If you wanted to keep your job, you learned that no matter how dumb any ad campaign seemed, you would always cheer for it. You would of course hope that your perception of the latest marketing scheme was wrong, and that somehow the 10 x 20 backyard on your current project really was attractive to growing families.
From this I learned a great truth about marketing, politics and life: you only have to be a salesperson twice in any campaign: first, when you sell your plan (idea, self, etc.) to someone or some organization, and, second, when you have to explain to those same people why the plan didn’t come anywhere near their expectations. This principal was at the heart of the auto industry for decades, the guiding principle of all political campaigns and the soul of most successful marriages today.
Politicians have long used this principle with great success. They know that as long as they promise the right stuff to get elected, and can explain the actual stuff you get after they get elected, they can stay in office as long as they are allowed to. As citizens we actually support this kind of behavior by how we think of politicians: to rework Melvin Udall’s famous quote about women from “As Good as it Gets”, when we think of politicians we think of a person, and then we take away reason and accountability. For the most part, we keep our expectations of our elected municipal officials fairly low. We hope that since we are paying a fortune to have professional people run the city that our elected amateurs wouldn’t do too much damage in the time we give them to play at city visionaries and creators.
We are amused when they can’t figure out how to water the landscape on Baseline Road, but can orchestrate a much-needed refurbishment at Hermosa Park. We are in awe of the collaboration between the city and the local community college that has given us an amazing library, but wonder why they can’t find a way to keep South Mountain Park’s Interpretive Center open. We are perplexed that we work on a plan for contaminated properties along the Rio Salado, but leave a plan for Broadway for some distant generation.
The missing piece is accountability at all levels. If a business allows its marketing firm to only talk to top execs, their ideas will only result in excuses, a of loss of revenue and the loss of the sales team. If elected officials are not in touch with all the people in their districts, the results will be dissatisfaction and a lack of civic pride and engagement. In areas where not a lot of people actually vote, it is even more difficult to make politicians accountable. They need only appeal to their base and the other voters will have to be satisfied with their excuses.
What can be done? Well, quitting won’t help. But you must never stop holding these folks accountable for the things that matter to you, your neighborhood, your village and your city. In a recent redistricting squabble between Districts 7 and 8, there were real questions about due process and community input. But another question that wasn’t asked was: Why does it matter at all on this side of the river? Is there a larger argument about the political power of an individual council person and how that might benefit an entire district? Or, should the real question be, how do we get our council people to pay attention to both sides of the river? Maybe it is time to reevaluate the entire system and have a district that just represents the Southside and one that just represents Downtown.
At any rate, don’t think that by asking questions about how to make our community better, it makes a person negative. It doesn’t. On the other hand, it won’t get you free drinks from any politicians at the American Legion.
Written by Greg Brownell