Harlan: Slow down and focus on the details

In Poor Richard's Almanack, Benjamin Franklin popularized the idiom we love to quote but have a difficult time applying to our daily lives: Haste makes waste.

As children, we frequently heard this admonition from parents and teachers. Take your time, do it right the first time. With math teachers, in particular, it was often followed by another directive: Show your work.

But we are busy people, and it's rare to focus on one task at a time. One of my friends lamented recently that, with a full schedule of work, tending to three children and trying to keep her home livable (let alone clean), she has a hard time just "being in the moment."

Not surprisingly, there are formal movements aimed at helping us slow down and being more present in our lives. Slow food, slow eating, the slow home, even the slow city. The common idea is to act thoughtfully and deliberately. Do things carefully, do them right and enjoy them.

Governance is a slow process. We have rules and procedures to ensure that the public has a voice in the process and that our leaders act fairly and rationally. Of course, in some instances the criticism that government moves too slowly is warranted.

But when considering drastic changes to city operations or proposing an unprecedented approach to managing public assets, the need for thoughtful deliberation, community support and measured action is paramount.

Consider the Costa Mesa City Council majority's botched outsourcing scheme, the fast-tracked charter proposal and the proposed privatization of the TeWinkle Park athletic complex.

Regardless of whether outsourcing city jobs was the right policy choice for Costa Mesa, the council decided to take action before it conducted its due diligence.

An initiative of this scale and complexity required the utmost attention to detail. Had the council recognized that, it would have discovered its own policy about the procedure for outsourcing, and followed the then-city attorney's advice. This was not a mere technicality to be ignored; ultimately, it may prove to be the scheme's fatal flaw.

The result of this carelessness is a hefty (and growing) legal bill for litigation that could have been avoided. By the city's accounting, we've spent more than $800,000 through this April.

Not to be deterred, the council majority foisted its charter scheme on the community at the end of 2011 so that it could meet the deadline for submission on the June 2012 primary election. Rejecting the community's recommendation to be included in the process and pleas to form a charter committee, which would have taken a reasonable time to craft an original and appropriate document for Costa Mesa, the council rushed to file the necessary paperwork with the county in June.

The council's haste led to a clerical filing error, more lawyers, more taxpayer money misspent, and more mistrust in the community.

Although maybe not as grand as the citywide charter and outsourcing schemes, the proposal to privatize TeWinkle Park is emblematic of the council's hasty decision making.

Without any community support, available funding or even a defined project, the council majority directed staff to issue a request for qualifications (RFQ) to select a vendor for a public-private partnership to improve, maintain and operate the park's baseball and softball complex. Despite these concerns, the council in October chose a vendor who has been working with a handpicked task force to develop a plan.

But there are several unanswered questions that should have been resolved before the city ever went out to public bid:

•Is privatizing the athletic complex in violation of the 1973 deed from the U.S. Department of Interior to the city, which requires the parkland to be used for public recreational purposes in perpetuity? In fact, this issue was raised not by the city, which should have discovered it in its due diligence before pursuing the RFQ process, but by vigilant local residents.

•Will the Newport-Mesa Unified school board relinquish school property for the development of a parking lot, as proposed in the current design concept? Would the board allow alcohol sales to occur in such close proximity to the Davis Magnet School site?

•Is the proposed project even consistent with the adopted TeWinkle Park Master Plan?

Once again, these seemingly small, but important, details will determine the project's success or failure. In this time of diminishing municipal capital — the dwindling number of city staff and our limited general funds — it is even more important that we use our resources wisely. Unfortunately, the council's haste has cost us dearly.

Leadership should be based on listening and researching, then taking thoughtful, decisive action. It's time to slow down, focus on the details and respect, if not enjoy, the process.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World