(Cross-posted from the Geeting blog as part of our Munipocalypse 2013! coverage)
One would think that with as much experience as Bob Donchez has he would have some big accomplishments to point to, but what was really remarkable about his announcement speech for Bethlehem Mayor was how little he has to show for all that time on City Council. Sure he’s voted for a lot of good (and bad) stuff during his 16 years in the seat, but what issues has he really lead on? What issues would not have gotten on the agenda, but for Bob Donchez?
I think the problem is that Donchez misunderstands the value of political experience. The practical reason political experience matters is for accumulating the power and influence to enact your policy vision. You accumulate a lot of political capital by taking popular positions, and then you spend it down on your policy agenda. But as Donchez made clear in his announcement speech, he doesn’t have anything resembling a policy agenda:
Donchez said he plans to put together a task force of community leaders to study how to best run the city’s government.
“All aspects of city government must be reviewed,” Donchez said. He said while Bethlehem is undergoing financial difficulties, he believes the city’s best days are ahead of it.
Donchez also said he wants to consult financial experts to find the best uses for the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. land, which he called a “golden opportunity” for new jobs and expansion of the city’s tax base.
Donchez has been on Council for over 16 years and he doesn’t have an opinion on how best to run city government? He doesn’t have an opinion about how best to use the former Steel land? These issues have been debated on City Council every year he’s served. Shouldn’t he have detailed opinions about whether the current strategies are working? Isn’t that the reason somebody would prefer the candidate of experience?
Don’t get me wrong – technocratic governance is the ideal. I’m all for bringing some experts in to review how services are delivered in Bethlehem, or how assets like city land are being used, and then make recommendations for improvements. It’s admirable when politicians consult experts on the best practices in these areas before making decisions.
Where Bob Donchez comes up short as a political leader is that he can’t be trusted to follow through on those recommendations. We just saw a test case of this recently with the single trash hauler debate.
Last year, nearby Palmer Township completed a study of best practices in designing trash collection markets. They set out to learn which trash collection model would save their residents the most money, and keep the Township the cleanest it could be, so they compared a few different approaches to see what works best.
What they found was that, hands down, the cheapest and best trash market design is a single trash hauler with automated pick-up. Every other local government in the Lehigh Valley knows that contracting with a single hauler is the best trash market design, and has known this for a long time.
So did Bob “Best Practices” Donchez vote for John Callahan’s proposal to switch to a single hauler, and end Bethlehem’sfailed experiment with trash libertarianism?
No he did not. In the end, he did not really care what the best practices were. He made his voting decision based on a couple hundred people – a tiny and unrepresentative fraction of Bethlehem’s population – yelling at him.
On economic development and land use issues, Donchez has similarly been ignoring studies calling for more mixed uses in his city’s walkable neighborhoods. Just two years ago Bethlehem commissioned a walkability study by Jeff Speck that seems to be collecting dust now. But there are enough creative ideas for capital improvements and zoning changes in there to keep city politicians and planners busy for decades, but as far as I can tell Donchez hasn’t engaged with this stuff at all. The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission has been beating the drum on walkability and pedestrian-focused land use planning for years.
The problem is not that we don’t know what the expert consensus is on some of these questions, or that we don’t have good information about the trade-offs involved. The problem is that the best practices are sometimes politically unpopular,and go-along-to-get-along politicians like Bob Donchez are not willing to vote for them.
You can do all the studies you want, but in the end there’s no substitute for political leadership. Some of the policies that will grow Bethlehem’s economy and improve quality of life for residents are controversial or downright unpopular. Real political leadership means being willing to vote for stuff like the single trash hauler plan, even when some people make a fuss about it.
(Thanks: Lynn Olanoff)