I've been writing about Tuesday's elections for the New Brighton city government and now it's time to draw a few conclusions.
The problems that New Brighton face are daunting and largely of the local government's own making. And I think a lot of the problems stem from misguided ambition. Let's be honest about one thing -- if a mayor sticks precisely to the job description in a city like New Brighton, it's not that exciting a job. New Brighton, like many communities, employs a fulltime city manager who handles the day-to-day administrative workings of the city. New Brighton has largely had highly competent administrators during this time and that has meant that, at least in terms of the services a municipality generally provides, there's not a lot for the local politicians to do.
Steve Larson, the incumbent mayor, strikes me as an ambitious guy, as was his predecessor, Bob Benke, who remains a crucial eminence grise in the local political scene. Benke earned the somewhat derisive nickname of "Bob the Builder" because he managed to get a number of municipal buildings erected during his time. If you go into New Brighton City Hall, you'll see his name on the dedication plaque in the entry of the building. It's one of the satisfactions of what would otherwise be a small bore job -- seeing your name on the entrance plaque, knowing that it will still be there for people to read long after you've left the fray. Let's face it -- people, especially politicians, love to leave footprints.
Larson has his name inside a few buildings around town, too, and one of the legacies he and Benke were hoping to have was the Northwest Quadrant project. If the project had come off as intended, it would have been a project that would have transformed New Brighton, with a densely populated residential and commercial mix in the New Urbanist style on the model of Orenco Station, a top-down project in suburban Portland that is one of the Holy Grails of those who enjoy seeing their names on plaques.
As it happens, the project has become a disastrous mistake. Unsightly yet productive businesses have been driven away and replaced with. . . nothing. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent for land that will require extensive environmental abatement before it can be reused, with costs in the tens of millions. All the money for other development in the City is now tied to the Northwest Quadrant, meaning that stasis is about the best that can be hoped for in the rest of the city. Meanwhile, you can drive down Old Highway 8, a newly rebuilt and resurfaced thoroughfare with expensive lighting that illuminates a moonscape. It's a beautifully rendered pathway through nothing. For New Brighton taxpayers, who are on the hook for perhaps $100 million with almost nothing to show from Mayor Larson's development efforts, it's a well-paved road to hell.
Maybe Steve Larson could still get his name on a few plaques if he can just get by this election. Maybe he can turn all this around, with the help of a few reliable votes on the City Council. Maybe his real estate development acumen will improve now that he's sunk the city's fisc into this mess. Maybe the potential developers will pretend that the city is not desperate to salvage this project and will be willing to help the mayor out by being maganimous in future negotiations. Maybe this time, after failure upon failure, this good-hearted fellow Larson, who would like to remind you that he has given 32 years -- 32 years! -- of his life to public service, will get it right. All he needs is another chance, right?
Are you skeptical? You should be. We shouldn't reward this sort of performance. There's no reason to believe that Steve Larson will do a better job if only he gets another chance, and if only he can get his friends Graeme Allen and Char Samuelson to help him out. Right Hook at Boots On has explained the case against Allen and Samuelson quite well.
Fortunately for the citizens of our community, there are worthy alternatives. Dave Jacobsen will make a fine mayor. He has approached his campaign with a steady hand and he has a 39-year career in the corporate sector that bespeaks quiet competence and effective leadership. He has seen negotiations, he has dealt with environmental issues and he is coming to the office with no greater ambition than to serve the citizens of his community. Gina Bauman, who has served with great distinction on the City Council for the past 4 years, understands the challenges ahead and has the financial background to understand how to make things work. I cannot overstate the importance of keeping Bauman on the council. And for the second council seat, voters have the choice of either Paul Jacobsen, a man who has an extensive leadership background in the military who would bring a fresh, yet fiscally sound perspective to the council, or Walt Witzke, a longtime New Brighton resident who understands well the financial impact of past decisions and has a proven background in managing to do more with less in the corporate sector. Either man would provide valuable support on the City Council.
If New Brighton is going to get better, it needs better leadership. Tuesday is the day to make that happen.