Community Commentary: Long-term growth, value of city is important

A number of Costa Mesans — council members, planning commissioners, residents and bloggers — have commented recently on what ails our city and how to fix it.

City Hall, it seems, is where change needs to take place in order to improve conditions for our residents and businesses. Restructuring the civic corporation, the logic goes, will lift the city out from the depths of financial insecurity and move us toward becoming a more sustainable community.

This is a common but shortsighted view of how cities change and evolve. While I agree that the city as a corporation is an apt metaphor, I believe many of our officials have glossed over a few key points.

First, a city government is not a private corporation. Rather, it is a nonprofit enterprise driven by creating value — not profit — for its citizens (i.e., the shareholders).

Value is measured over long periods of time; it doesn’t just appear because a budget is balanced in one fiscal year. The goal of any city council should be to maximize value, which is expressed in the city’s land, revenues and infrastructure, as well as in education, employment and community services.

Second, the City Council, serving as the nonprofit corporation’s board of directors, should primarily focus on setting policies and goals. The city manager, appropriately named the chief executive officer in Costa Mesa, is hired to execute the policies, advise the council and run the city’s day-to-day operations.

The CEO should be given the authority and flexibility to figure out the best ways to meet the goals with the organization’s resources. It would be a travesty to reduce the CEO’s role to merely serving as a contracts administrator.

Third, a city’s assets are not just what you’ll find listed in the annual budget report. As a corporate organization, the city’s parks and recreation facilities, streets and utilities infrastructure, and especially its employees, certainly represent a large part of the city’s valuable resources.

But the community itself — the residents, businesses, educational institutions, neighborhood organizations — can serve as a significant asset that adds value and informs the government’s decision-making process. Perhaps it is time to convene an honest and open community conversation about what is our collective vision for Costa Mesa? A corporation that doesn’t listen carefully and respond to its shareholders will have a short lifespan.

There are, to be sure, distinct differences between cities and corporations. Cities are living organisms that endure, while businesses have finite lives.

Government administrations come and go, but the communities, for better or worse, will remain. Hopefully, the current elected and appointed council members will recognize and respect the limitations of their roles and choose to deliver long-term value to Costa Mesa through a transparent and inclusive process.

Despite my current apprehension, I am one shareholder that is betting on the long-term growth of my city.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner and Eastside Costa Mesa resident.