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The Second Day of Genesis

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Keith Reester
February 9, 2020

The creation story in the Jewish and Christian faiths is widely known; over seven days, God creates the earth and all things in it. On the first day God creates the world and light, then on day two, the work on creating the earth and defining its details begins in earnest. This story, although based in religion, is often repeated in local governments across the nation every election cycle as new members are elected to city councils and town boards. Newly minted local council members run to make their community better sometimes as a one-issue candidate or perhaps with a broader goal of improving or protecting their town. Many first-timers are shocked, overwhelmed and excited about the actual breadth of work a city does and council members’ roles in that effort.

In some cities, the day after the election can become the second day of Genesis. Across the United States, only 15 states require municipalities to have an adopted comprehensive plan. However, most encourage or incentivize comprehensive planning.  A comprehensive plan articulates a series of goals, objectives, policies, actions and standards intended to guide the day-to-day decisions of elected officials and local government staff. Some states require jurisdictions to update plans regularly and request certain vital elements; for example, land use, recreation and tourism, infrastructure, transportation and housing. Other examples beyond land use are pretty wide open.

Why is this important? Continuity. A comprehensive plan provides current and newly elected officials a framework that carries over through elections, providing a continuous foundation for community growth, preservation and framing levels of service. This critical framework also provides the elements for municipal staff to review, approve and execute work daily.

It seems a simple equation; developing a community-based plan, cultivating ordinances and regulations around the plan goals, and then execution. Anyone who has ever been active in local government knows there is a great deal of variability in that path.

How do local officials, both professional and elected, bridge the gap to assure plan goals reflect community values and provide a vision over the next two decades or more? Initially, it takes a commitment by the sitting elected body to enunciate the need for a visionary policy, fund the steps necessary to start new or update a plan, then have the political willpower to stay the course during the developmental process. In many jurisdictions, it takes 24-36 months working through the process of development, and elected officials, citizens and staff can get fatigued over time. At the heart of any desirable community vision is public engagement, and this program is the top of the heap for that need.

When communities seek out public engagement, it is laborious and time-consuming, and the effective model for doing so is still changing around us. Ten years ago, telephone town halls and twitter outreach didn’t play a role. The challenge here is truly creating public engagement—more than just rote surveys and a few evening public meetings. In our fast paced world those approaches seem insular and are prone to only a few having a voice. There are extraordinary examples of cities that took this challenge and touched thousands of citizens through public park outreach events, speaker series events, attendance at a host of community events, working with faith-based groups and exploring messaging across social media. An astonishing failure is a city’s plan developed in isolation only with the council, staff and a few commissions onboard. Greater community engagement is essential to a diverse vision that reflects authentic community values.

If asked, most citizens would assume their town has a comprehensive plan articulating the future. A robust blueprint includes vertical integration with county and state goals, horizontal integration with bordering communities, and an internal structure defining land use, zoning, and core community services. In reality, many do not have a plan or one not updated in years, or when updated, one that was weak on significant citizen and business participation. Check with your local community and ask how extensive a role the citizenry played in the outcome.

Leading a community, visioning the future and supporting such a vision takes courage and a willingness to engage and listen. The trap of letting every election restart what it means to be a great city is a disservice to current residents and businesses. It also leaves out considerations for future generations. Local government leaders, both elected and staff, have a responsibility not to let every two-year election cycle be the second day of Genesis.

Author: Keith Reester is the Public Works & Utilities Director for the City of Littleton, Colorado. Keith also serves consulting clients in the public and private sectors improving performance. Reester is the author of the book Define. Measure. Create – A Leadership Journey.

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