Last Thursday, Daily Pilot columnist Joseph Bell articulated a question for the ages. He was commenting on the specifics of a financial plan offered by Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry that promised to create "a leaner, more efficient, more effective and better-managed" city government.
According to Curry, the plan is already working and helping the city avoid drawing from its reserves. Bell then asked: "If this could be accomplished so readily under the stress of economic necessity, why wasn't it done before the crisis required it?"
Here's the answer: The Newport Beach City Council did not make any changes prior to the recession because it is a large bureaucracy, and like almost every other bureaucracy, public or private, its primary mission is to preserve the status quo. Bureaucracies do not like change and so their resistance to it becomes a daily activity, often at the expense of the greater good of the organization.
Here's a case in point from the private sector: About 15 years ago, I owned a business that sold organizing products for homes and offices. One day, I received a call from the office manager of a division of a large and well-known company with a local branch. Over the phone, she ordered a large amount of office products for the local office, but there was a catch: "You have to deliver it by Dec. 31," she said.
As it was mid-November, that was not a problem. When I got to the office, I inquired about the deadline and was told that the money had to be spent or it would be taken out of the department's budget for the following year. It was the old "use it or lose it" mentality.
That story is not new, in fact, it happens — I am guessing — thousands of times every year before the end of the fiscal year for businesses and governments. Everywhere throughout the country these enterprises are spending money for products, people and services they don't really need, just so they can preserve the status quo. This is waste, and the price is paid, ultimately, by the taxpayer and consumer, always the same people.
School boards are bureaucracies, too, as are unions, both of which butt heads to determine whose status quo will change. For school boards and unions, talking about changes is an art. Both claim to want to do what is best for students, but locally, there are schools on the Westside of Costa Mesa that have been underperforming for too long and should have been turned over to an outside operator to run them. But there's that resistance to change once again.
In fact, the only significant changes for the Newport-Mesa school board in the last decade have been the passage of two statewide bonds totaling nearly $500 million to make physical repairs to the schools. In other words, they took your money, with no investment on their part, politically or financially. The students on the Westside continue to flounder, but at least the toilets work.
Innovation for the school board would mean experimenting with a later starting time for a Westside school which, according to the results of a study published in the current issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, has many benefits. Don't hold your breath.
As with municipal governments across the country, the city of Newport Beach was cruising along until the recession came. People were shopping, tax receipts were healthy and life as a city official was good. There was no need for improvement because that meant sticking out one's neck.
One of the few benefits of a recession of this type is that constituents see who is really fit to govern. You see, anyone can administrate when times are good. It's when the chips are down that we find out who can innovate and lead.
This example in Costa Mesa is typical: Last year, the Costa Mesa City Council placed one too many conditions on the folks at In-N-Out Burger, who wanted to erect a store at the noisy 405 Freeway exit at Harbor Boulevard. In-N-Out said, "No thanks."
That was some easy money and according to the In-N-Out corporate office, that location is not on their list of new units. Just last week, however, the council approved the construction of an affordable-housing project for seniors that will be 35 feet from a noisy night club and also very close to a freeway and a fire station.
One project made sense, the other does not. But that's what happens when bureaucracies are devoid of leaders; of people who initiate change and can manage in a crisis, not flail away in their desperation to restore the status quo.
STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to email@example.com.