Tuesday, December 16, 2008

You Can Leave Your Shoes On

Who knew the international sign of disgust was to fling your footwear at the object of your disdain? As everyone knows by now, an Iraqi journalist offered that very critique of the blessedly departing colonial moron during a press event.

The present incarnation of the City Council, while not departing, is winding down its first year. This seems a good time to reflect on its progress to date.

The first significant decision of the Council was to choose Jeff Gahan as its president. That decision carried two major ramifications which unfolded over the course of the year. First was the shelving of the redistricting plan. A newly drawn Council District map would have had no effect on the current representation on the council, but could have yielded a different roster going into the elections of 2011. Although this issue appears dead, its reappearance should shock no one.

The second major plot point owing to Gahan's position was the smoking ordinance. That ordinance represented a principled stand on an issue about which there should be no debate. That there was debate can not be denied. The outcome of this issue was determined by a Mayoral veto. That decision could have proven an insurmountable obstacle to the necessary cooperation between any Mayor and any Council. It did not, and I am grateful for that. I will not make a categorical statement on future smoking legislation, but I'd be disinclined to revisit the issue in any form, any time, for any reason.

The issue which I feel is central to so many of our problems can be wrapped up in a package called code enforcement. The city, any city, can not sustain itself when housing stock deteriorates to the point it discourages people and families from seriously considering living in it.
Areas of New Albany have reached that point now and the question is, do those poorly maintained neighborhoods outweigh the well maintained areas. Does the potential resident, with no emotional background to influence their settling here, assess the city as a whole, and is that good or bad? Do these people see a city with some neighborhoods that could stand some improvement or do they see a city which has turned its back on certain areas? Can we expect sustainable prosperity if that is how the city is seen? Every city has good parts and bad parts. In a small community, such as New Albany, the fortunes of both parts are more closely tied together. That shared destiny should be one of our assets as a small city. As part of government, I see our responsibility to improve the substandard areas through any means available and to bring additional amenities which might make the city more livable. New amenities are a tall order in these austere times, but we should continue to try.

Enforcing extant ordinances is well within our capabilities. Failure to make a meaningful effort in that pursuit amounts to dereliction of duties. The Mayor has taken some advice from the Council committee formed to look at housing code enforcement. That committee cannot take credit for the results the Mayor will surely realize when he focuses the administration's attention to the issue, which he has scheduled to do early in January. It is past time when this issue must be addressed straight on. Nothing less than the future of the City depends on it.

My wife, one of her granddaughters, and I were in Bloomington Saturday. No surprise, but Bloomington offered a truly festive downtown replete with lights and plenty of people. What fiscal hocus pocus do they possess which eludes us? We saw something more surprising as we returned home through Salem. That magnet of prosperity had also adorned itself for the holidays with lights and presented, again, a festive downtown. It was too late for many to be out on the streets but when they were out they would see a town square of which they could be proud. With no dismissal of anyone's efforts in New Albany intended, I would suggest that our downtown looks drab in comparison. Several stores are nicely decorated for the season, with the new Winery exceptionally so.

To be sure, New Albany's problems can't be solved with lights and tinsel. We can find hope in the fact that several businesses have moved to downtown or have made substantial progress toward doing so. The YMCA is by far the most tangible sign of renewal. It is such a huge step forward, it is like JFK said of America, "we have tossed our cap over the wall of space." His meaning was that we were committted to the space race and would have no way to proceed but forward. The YMCA tosses our cap over the wall of downtown revitalization. Our task now is to smooth the path for anyone venturous enough to follow an entrepreneurial motivation to set up new business downtown. Luckily, unlike Louisville, New Albany will not find itself dancing a quarter billion dollar tune to the likes of the Cordish Group in pusuit of revival. It is unfathomable in light of the continual activity at the Y, that some in our community stood in opposition to this project. Thankfully, we have moved on.

My first step out of the gate this year was a stumble. I attempted to pass an ordinance early on giving the Council the authority to charter boards and commissions comprised of citizens. It turns out the Council already possessed such authority, and the proposed ordinance would have added an unneccesary item to the code book. That ordinance remains on the table and will be withdrawn at this year's final meeting. In its place, during January, a specific ordinance to establish a Chestnut Restoration Project will be introduced in its place. The purpose of this will be to reintroduce chestnut trees, albeit a blight resistant variety, into our floral census. These trees were nearly driven to extinction by a blight during the 1940-50s. Anyone with a negative view of trees is on alert to marshall their forces now. Bets anyone?

Some rumblings on the horizon suggest that the Pater Noster may soon depart from the Council's opening routine. I don't believe the civic arena is an appropriate venue for prayer. The prayer intoned at Council meetings is coerced and, therefore, stripped of its spiritual essence. I believe a more appropriate offering for that time slot would be a "civic prayer". That is, a short speech or presentation by local grade school students who would give a half minute or a minute on whatever topic they choose. It should be an honor to be chosen, and it would give students a chance to hone their public speaking and research skills. If my recollection of grade school is accurate, a half minute to a minute would feel like a lifetime under the circumstances.

Regardless of how people view the action or inaction of the Council, I can say that each member I have interacted with has the city's interests at heart. Each member has a certain role to fill and each member is open to input from citizens. While no one will satisfy all of our citizens all of the time, on balance I have been pleasantly surprised with the Council, especially under the trying fiscal situation we face. I think it has been a pretty good start. I think that start will provide a good base for progress in the next year. Of course I'm biased, but if I were sitting in the audience or assessing the Council's performance from home, I'd leave my shoes on, at least for now.