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Monday, November 05, 2007

New Brighton Mayor Steve Larson - A Prime Case for Term Limits

In my previous post I looked at the weak case Mayor Steve Larson's campaign literature presented for his re-election. In addition to providing little to no positive reasons to put Mr. Larson back into office the piece also indicates that the City of New Brighton should seriously consider imposing term limits for elected officials.

Ignoring the touchy-feely lobbying for WCCO Good Neighbor award points, the entries touting Mr. Larson's "experience" is clearly indicative of the resume of a career politician:
  • President Minnesota JCI Senate 1987
  • Human Rights Commission 1980-1981
  • Ramsey County League of Local Government Delegate 1988
  • AMM and LMC Delegate 1989-1990
  • EDC Member 1990, 1991, 2000-2007
  • City Council Member: 12 year
  • Mayor: 8 years
  • Metro Cities Board member: 7 years, Past President 2006
  • League of Minnesota Cities Board Member: 4 years
  • Cable Commission Board Member: 8 years, Chair 2006-2007
  • I35W Coalition Board Member
  • NLC Public Safety/Crime Prevention Steering Committee: 5 years
  • President North Metro Mayors Association: 2002-2006
  • State of Minnesota OSHA Review Board Member: 8 years
The problem with career politicians that in many cases (and I believe one can very easily make the application in this one) is that the person holding the office "grows" into the position and evolves from the holder of the office to, at least in his mind and in the minds of his supporters and political cronies, the embodiment of the office. In order to maintain all of these memberships and advance within this elite group political capital must be constantly traded and there are consequences associated with such transactions. For example, to get and maintain a lofty position with the League of Minnesota Cities one has to play ball with the league which is often not in the best interests or the desires of the electorate.

Holding office for such a long period of time facilitates the building of a peer support network (as evidenced by all of the extra curricular positions on commissions and other government and quasi-government entities) as well as a "posse" of commission appointees, firms that do business with the city (e.g. how long has New Brighton done business with the same legal counsel without a real review of whether or not the city is receiving good value?). Can anyone deny the potentially increased influence on city government that a business person or commission member has by being a "Friend of Steve"? (could this be how the Marv's Transmission debacle came about?) This support network allows career politicians to view the entity they govern as their fiefdom where things get done their way or no way.

To keep their political influence and power at a peak level career politicians end up serving two masters: the voters and their support network. The support network requires constant "attention" as the politicians within the network are engaged in a symbiotic existence to maintain and advance their elected careers and the political influence of their unelected positions, while the voters really only need to be thrown a bone or two at election time.

Such an arrangement is not conducive for the citizens of the community having their voices heard. In New Brighton citizens have very limited input into City Council proceedings under policies started by former Mayor Benke and refined by Mayor Larson. Unlike many other cities, there is no true open microphone for questions that come up during the course of meetings (generally if you don't get your written request to address the council to the mayor before the meeting starts you will not get to speak).

You can see for yourself how much Mayor Larson appears to discourage public comment (and possibly public criticism). At the September 6th meeting of the North Suburban Communications Commission chaired by Mayor Larson he actually made a clumsy attempt to unilaterally institute a new commission policy of having the "Public Forum" phase of the meetings suppressed from being aired on cable, apparently in response to criticism that citizens had voiced at previous meetings. You can watch Mayor Larson in action by clicking here or you can copy and paste "rtsp://qtss.ctv15.org:80/qtmedia/NSCCNSAC_07-09-06.mov" into your multi-media player if it supports it. The heavy-handed stumbling and bumbling in question occurs within the first few minutes of the proceedings. As a resident of New Brighton I found this performance embarrassing.

The vision of our nation's founding fathers of the "citizen legislator" was one of true public service where one would take some time away from their trade to serve as a legislator for a term or two and then return to their trade and allow someone else to serve. Mr. Larson has served on the City Council for 12 years and for the last 8 years as Mayor where he has pretty much carried on the policies of his predecessor and mentor former Mayor Bob Benke who had held the office since 1987 (in fact, one hears rumblings around town that Mr. Benke has a lot of influence over how the city is run from his position on the Economic Development commission. City Commissions not only do not have term limits, they also do not answer to the voters).

Consider how the city has embarked upon what I have termed in a previous post as a "Destiny with Mediocrity" over the 20 years or so with Benke-Larson and their cronies at the helm:
  • Brighton Village, once one of the model retail centers in the Northern Suburbs, has declined and fallen and is now just getting redeveloped after about an eight year virtual vacancy (once Lunds, an enterprise that only maintains stores in upscale communities, left there was very little reason for people to go there).
  • The Northwest Quadrant redevelopment, which has been on the agenda for almost the entire 20 years in one form or another, is a fiscal, environmental, legal, and esthetic mess with potentially grim repercussions for city taxpayers.
  • The city has become known for its blatant abuse of eminent domain which is not going to make it easy to attract new small businesses to the city or provide incentives for current business owners to upgrade their properties.
  • Multi-unit and low income rental housing has grown out of control and has brought the problems inherent to such use to the city.
  • The business climate is chilly at best and the city doesn't really have a central or contiguous business district. Where can one dine in an upscale restaurant, or even buy a pair of shoes, in New Brighton?
  • Soaring Tax Levys
  • Far too much action is taken at the behest or recommendation of the LMC and the Met Council (e.g. the short-sighted animated sign ordinance, lobbying against eminent domain reform, etc.)
Compared to our neighboring communities, which have also had problems but are starting to show progress in dealing with them, New Brighton has lost ground among its peers. All-in-all there has not been a glowing record of success under the current long term leadership of Benke and Larson.

The question comes down to how long should a "public servant" have to implement their ideas and leave their mark on the city in the interests of the citizens? My view is that Mayor Larson has been in city government for far too long. If he really had effective ideas to implement the will of the voters 20 years is more than enough time to do it. If they haven't happened in 20 years they are not going to happen as I believe is clearly becoming more and more obvious with each day Larson and his people are running things at City Hall and on the city commissions.

To be fair Mayor Larson and his posse are not not necessarily the cause of all of the problems the city now faces (but they have at least some responsibility more than their fair share). He can and should, however, be held accountable for the way the problems have been addressed and, more importantly, the results of his leadership. After 20 years of Benke-Larson, for better or for worse (and I believe a strong argument can be made for "worse"), we are where we are as a city.

Clearly the time has come for Mayor Larson to step aside and allow someone else to address the multitude of problems the city now faces. Unfortunately, he seems to hold and promote the belief that he is uniquely qualified to serve as Mayor, a common trait of career politicians. This is, of course, nonsense. We should thank him for his service and allow him to gracefully ride off into the sunset. Unfortunately Mr. Larson does not see it this way and, like a bombing vaudeville act that refuses to leave the stage, the people running the show (i.e. the citizens of New Brighton) have to force the issue for the good of the production. In vaudeville parlance this is known as "giving the act the hook" and is purely coincidental to my moniker ;).

We do not have term limits in New Brighton (perhaps a new administration will implement them for elected officials and commission members), but we do have an election tomorrow where we can accomplish the net result and vote to remove this failing act along with his supporting cast from our stage.

Let's not miss the opportunity.



Blogger Daria said...

According the the Candidate Survey Mayor Larson is supportive of term limits. Interesting...though not especially believable.

It would be refreshing for him to put his money (rather than ours for a change) where his mouth is on this one.

- D

11/05/2007 10:04 PM  

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