Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

What Mayors Need

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

Last week, Mayor Whipple had a rough time during the city council meeting, with his request for a deputy somewhat embarrassingly tabled in the face of both criticism from other council members and a long list of online attacks that got read into the record. The whole affair has already been critically commented on, but as a break from talking about the coronavirus pandemic all the time, let me beat this dead horse one more time--most because I hope it will revive.

Not immediately, to be sure. Some members of the city council argued that any discussions about additional staff in the city's government needed to wait on the completion of a comprehensive review currently being conducted by the city manager's office; others pointed out that the politics of hiring a major new city employee at a time of government furloughs, increasing unemployment, and great economic uncertainty are pretty dubious, to say the least. And beyond that, there was disagreement between Mayor Whipple and different council members over how best to describe the duties of such a deputy, over who would be the likely candidates for such a position, and over whether or not a city employee already exists who could fill exactly the sort of policy research and community outreach role he's requesting. (The office in question is part of the city's Communications Team; it seems unlikely to me that any such a person could serve as full-time city-wide assistant to the mayor, in the way that community service representatives may at least potentially serve individual city council members within their districts, but the lack of specificity in the mayor's proposal and his subsequent presentation of it leaves the challenge somewhat unresolved.)

For all those reasons and more, it will probably be a while before Mayor Whipple contemplates trying again. But when the pandemic lessens and the staffing review is complete, as they both eventually will be, and when he can bring forward a more detailed proposal that better clarifies and responds to all of the above, he definitely should. Why? For reasons closely related to those I advanced back in December: that Wichita, when it looks at itself, and when at its peer cities around the country, should realize the need for a stronger, more democratically responsible form of government, and giving the mayor a deputy--a chief of staff, an executive assistant, call them what you will--is a small but important part of moving in the direction of such empowerment.

What does empowering the mayor have to do with democratic accountability? It is, in my view, a matter of public expectations. Wichita, like every American city over the past 30 years (which, incidentally, was when our current city council electoral arrangement was established), has changed. Our slow-growth (or steady-state) city certainly hasn't changed as much or as quickly as many others, but Wichita's urban population is nonetheless more diverse, its economy more complex, and its political culture even a little more blue than was the case a generation ago. Cities are organic entities, to be sure; new changes will always be overlaid on those that came before. But that's not a reason to take seriously where things stand at present. And the present situation, partly due to increased (and, unfortunately, often justifiable) frustrations about transparency and decision-making in our city government, is one that looks to the city government, and the person who at least nominally leads it, with the expectation of seeing a genuinely balanced, genuinely responsive, and most importantly genuinely decisive path providing, one that works through the welter of conflicting needs and demands presented by the various constituencies in our city. Hence, the argument goes, to deal effectively in our present (and still evolving) urban environment, whomever is elected mayor deserves more direct help, more resources for information and analysis, so as be more fully accountable to the citizens who look to that office for leadership.

One obvious response to this is reflected in the previously mentioned editorial: but Wichita's mayor isn't supposed to lead! Instead, under the council-manager system of government Wichita currently has, the mayor is just the chairperson of the city council, which collectively sets policies for our city manager, who executes all the actual decisions. Isn't asking for a deputy or chief of staff disregarding all that?

Now Mayor Whipple and some of his advisors insisted in some online discussions of his proposal that his request isn't connected to a desire to change Wichita's city charter, and thus re-structure form of government. Personally I suspect--given that so many, when they first saw this proposal, immediately thought in terms of power grabs anyway--that the mayor’s proposal would be better served, and thus would better serve the city in the long run, by just connecting it to various arguments about our government structure outright, and talking explicitly, alongside the need for mayoral assistance, about the need for a more accountable form of leadership in Wichita. That might involve thinking about the number or term length of city council members, or the role of the city manager, or any number of other possibilities.

But even if one is determined not to go so far, it doesn't change the reality of the aforementioned evolving public expectations, which are being experienced by city leaders everywhere. True, Mayor Whipple, when he made reference to other cities whose mayors have chiefs of staff, executive assistants, or deputies to assist them, did mention some which have (wisely, I think) made the change over to a strong mayor form of government: Tulsa, Omaha, Colorado Springs, etc. However, he could have just as easily mentioned various cities in our region which still operate under the council-manager system--Kansas City, KS, Kansas City, MO, and Oklahoma City, for example--all of which also have recognized the need to provide their mayors, as individuals representing the city at large, with chiefs of staff, to do exactly the kind of community engagement and research that our mayor asked for last week.

In short, even without thinking about other ways to address Wichita's governance needs, the mayor's request is one that reflects the same political and policy realities that numerous other city governments have recognized. So I hope that this proposal--given some re-writing and lots of back-room discussion--will return, perhaps stronger and better grounded for having gone through the wringer once already. Mayor Whipple, and the city itself, deserve it.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Archangel on a Bicycle

And I imagine, bringing the Good News to the countryside on Easter morning. By Jean-Marie Pirot (Arcabas). Thank you, Alan Jacobs. And happy Easter, everyone. bicycle

Thursday, April 09, 2020

The Coronavirus in Kansas: Wichita's Weaknesses and Strengths

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, it's sometimes easy, here in Wichita--a large city nonetheless somewhat isolated and disconnected from the larger metropolitan areas of the country, a city which centers a largely rural and therefore much more low risk part of the state--to be unclear if we're overreacting or not reacting enough.But feeling as though we’re stuck in the middle, feeling divided, is nothing new for a mid-sized city like ours.

In general the news for Kansas overall seems to be pretty good. It is looking like the spread of the virus, as it peaks in April, won't be as deadly as we feared, almost certainly in part because of Governor Laura Kelly's (and locally, Sedgwick County Commissioner Lacey Cruse's) insistence on pushing for stay-at-home orders as early as possible. But is it true that, in taking these actions, Wichita will suffer even more than it would have had the city, and its surrounding county and state, not shut things down? Obviously you can find folks who self-righteously insist upon just that. The evidence suggests otherwise--but all the same, there's reason to worry. My best guess, on the basis of both observations and ongoing research, is that Wichita, and most of our state generally, will be able to weather this month, and the next, relatively well--but that rebuilding afterwards may be confronted with some real difficulties.

On the positive side, comparative data provided by Wichita State University shows that, as Kansas’s economy is generally much less dependent upon service, entertainment, and tourist sectors than is the case elsewhere, we haven’t seen quite the same level of job losses and business closures statewide. The mainstays of Kansas’s economy–food production, manufacturing, education, and health care–are broadly considered essential, and thus have mostly been able to continue to operate.

That’s no comfort, of course, to the many Kansans who are suddenly facing unemployment and real economic distress. Nor does it lessen the fear which so many of us have here about the possible loss of so much that adds to the quality of life here in Wichita–the restaurants, the theaters, the bookstores, the "third places," and so much more. And that is what puts a question mark beside this otherwise good news for the folks in this city--Wichita is actually enough of a metropolitan economy that it does, in fact, include significant service and entertainment sectors. Not nearly what New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago or even Kansas City has, of course, but still, enough that, as the Wichita State study shows, a few of the negative economic effects (like regarding air travel) which are below the national average for Kansas, are slightly above it for Wichita. Not much, but slightly. This is why it is vital for Wichita to take seriously questions about how to keep money in the pockets of as many Wichitans as possible (providing maternity leave for city workers whose vacation and sick leave are being used to help support their fellow furloughed workers is one good idea) that probably aren't even on the radar screen in many smaller cities. Small actions, such are withing the jurisdiction of the mayor and the city council, may make all the difference in enabling Wichitans to enjoy the same lower level of economic pain and disruption which will likely characterize the rest of the state for the duration of the pandemic.

Something similar might be said regarding psychological pain and family disruption. Nowhere in Kansas--and certainly not even here in Wichita, the largest single city in the state--do we see the kind of urban density which characterizes those cities that have seen the largest outbreaks, and thus have had to take the most extreme actions for the sake of public health. But even if such measures become necessary here--and again, given the success that we've had in flattening the curve they hopefully will not be--they still wouldn’t play out the same way that they have in larger urban agglomerations. Simply put, Kansans--and Wichitans too--generally have easy access to rural space. When it comes to mental health and minimizing domestic conflict, that matters. As one writer suggested in The New York Times, social distancing in an environment when families have gardens, fields, and locally grown food readily available to them, is a very different prospect from social distancing when three people in a cramped downtown apartment have to maintain 6 ft. distance from one another, and when even the parks and sidewalks are often so crowded with people trying to find some openness that they become sources of stress and have to be subject to further regulation.

In a way, it might be Wichita's very in-betweeness which will make this city a real model insofar as such matters are concerned. We have a genuinely large population with a low enough level of density that nearly all of its residents can take advantage of rural space for physical and mental rejuvenation relatively easily. That's not to say that there aren't problems which some Wichitans could face in this regard; one may think of transportation and access to some of that (mostly privately owned, and sometimes fiercely patrolled) open space, particularly for poorer Wichitans in the downtown and southern parts of the city. And of course, the safety and maintenance of the trails and bike paths and road shoulders by which we can make use of that space once we get there is a question as well. As city leaders take a look of where to cut costs in the face of the financial hit the city is taking, and will continue to take, one hopes they're recognize that is, also, is part of the value and resilience of the city, and will attend to the costs of those easily overlooked resources accordingly.

Still, in general, it would be fair to conclude that Wichita, and south-central Kansas overall, has available to it the opportunities and the resources keep the economic damage and the social consequences of the pandemic minimal. But that, unfortunately, is not the whole story. We have to think about long-term impacts, and not just short-term ones.

As the same Wichita State study warns, food production and manufacturing in Kansas is heavily dependent upon supply chains in equipment and trade that the overall economic health of the nation effectively determines. Service workers and others who work in more creative or information-dependent sectors of the economy can snap back as soon as paying customers return; the same cannot be said for larger industries that need to wait for raw materials to ship or are dependent upon extended networks of specialized workers. The fact that Wichita, as mentioned above, actually does have a decent-sized service sector, will mean that, as the larger mainstays of Kansas's economy slowly struggle back to life, it may be the collective action of activists, entrepreneurs, and urban creatives in our city that will be end up being essential to whatever support will be needed for workers in the aircraft industry and others in the meantime. Of course, given how much of Wichita's workforce is tied up in heavy manufacturing, which over the past year has already taken many 737 Max-related hits, maybe the best we can hope for is a wash.

Agriculture may be another problem. True, the likelihood of the virus spreading widely in isolated Kansas farming towns is quite small. But as the work force in Kansas’s rural counties is also quite small, and as many of those counties–thanks to Republican opposition to extending Medicaid—lack basic health care resources, even a small outbreak could be devastating. The resulting could be a domino effect, with unproductive or failed farms and feedlots forcing closures in ancillary food industries across the state, many of which are concentrated in south-central Kansas, with Wichita as their hub. Ultimately we may see a hastening of the already underway rural population collapse in western Kansas, with long-term social, economic, and political consequences for our city, as more and more people throughout the region come to Wichita seeking medical care and basic economic opportunities, contributing our aging population and probably not adding much to the overall tax base. It's a good thing that Sedgwick County's population is just over the half-million mark, thereby qualifying it for at least a slice of the $150 billion the federal government has earmarked to help out state, county, and municipal governments; in the months to follow this pandemic, with so many liabilities building up and so much potential revenue off the table, it's going to need it.

As we wait to see what this plague brings into our lives, our task as Wichitans must be to use the resources we have–a large population, one which is likely to find ways to remain relatively stable, socially and economically, in the short-term–to reach out and help make more resilient those places likely to struggle the most as Kansas recovers from this pandemic, whenever that recovery fully comes.