Friday, July 30, 2010

Difficulties of governing

Government is basically the same everywhere except maybe here. You can't please everyone, especially here. In The Woodlands Texas, we have some unique issues. History drives our dilemma. We started as a development company and gradually transitioned into an association. Then we developed Town Center independently but in parallel with the residential villages using totally different concepts, but retaining similar processes and community values. Village residents were not necessarily in agreement with the development plans of Town Center but few contested the vision of a suburban downtown in the middle of the forest, governing itself. From the beginning, Town Center has been a place for visitors. Now it is also a place for a unique urbanized class of residents. With the merger of Town Center and association governments into a township government, some of the conflicts have not yet been adequately addressed. Some big issues remain and the task to effectively govern this community is difficult.  

Newer residents have embraced the ideas of urbanization more than old timers. This has caused somewhat of a conflict between naturalists and city dwellers, a concrete/steel society vs a natural setting. This subject is rarely discussed because it just lies in the background, like a shadow, going unnoticed and being misinterpreted as the same as a business vs residential conflict. Villagers do not want to hear noise or see concrete and steel in their communities. That is the basis of conflict between the two paradigms. Commercializing The Woodlands must be done with care and consideration for the reverse side of the coin.  

The line between commercialism and naturalism could be drawn at budget time. Residents should not have to pay for commercialism, yet investments in commercialism can save taxpayers real money. Now the question is constantly asked, should government be in business, with capital investments and profiteering? This is one ongoing debate that is currently occurring within the government of The Woodlands. It is a conflict, because there continues to be vestiges of the old Town Center in the way the directors think and act. After all, we have a number of old town center directors remaining on the current board.

Many people here ask pertinent and pointed questions, but they rarely take any action. Last night I attended a town hall meeting specifically convened to review the 2011 budget. Outside of the normal crowd, there were very few residents, maybe only two who stood up and made what I would call "normal resident" comments. I made comments too, but I have been commenting regularly ever since our governing question came to the table a few years ago. The township directors were all ears with pen and paper in hand, but with so few voices speaking, they should not feel comfortable in receiving the feedback they sought. They get what they can and will discuss what to do before finalizing the budget. Last year, the public produced more comments than this year and had significant impact on the outcome. This year, the election generated significant focus on the issues, but the public did not come out and vote. It was no surprise to me to see so few people attending the town hall meeting and so few comments made.

It is no surprise to see the same issues at the town hall meeting as the election. Are the issues real? Is policing really an issue? If it is, why didn't the public vote out the incumbents and let new ideas be brought forward? Status quo does not produce change. It sustains the old. It is interpreted as "everything is OK". Just keep the taxes the same and we will be happy.  Yet the public said something different in the residents' survey. There are problems to be solved, especially in law enforcement.

The board has therefore made a small change to the budget to reduce Alpha Omega mounted patrols and put the money towards policing. $300,000 was knocked off of the $1.5 million contract, yet we will continue to see the mounted patrols in the parking lot of Walmart at I-45 and SH-242. The idea is that they are charged with patrolling all of Town Center. We will increase policing in 2011 through more overtime and three more hires. Each hire will require a full sized police car, compatible with the Sheriff's fleet for high speed chases on highways. These automobiles must be replaced every four years. We are not county roads. We are a urban community of neighborhood streets. Our policing requirements are different than the county. Every officer is trained in the county processes and skills are developed in the same way. Sheriff policies must be retained in the deployment of the officers. Isn't it time to change?

Hand it to the board however. The proposed budget has a plan to study policing again. Yes, get consultants and see what is needed in the community. It is difficult to govern a community, especially when there are no skills within the board to manage the policing of our community. This study may be the right thing to do now, but it must be done carefully. Representatives from the village associations are being given the job of giving feedback on the future of our policing. Maybe the feedback should also be given to a committee of knowledgeable people in the community. There is an abundance of issues associated with the direction we are headed, but someone has to lead the effort and get it done.

Fortunately, we have seven residents who volunteer their time to make these decisions. I hope they take to heart the comments made last night in their thoughts as they reconsider some of the decisions in the budget. For one, I hope we move off of the old idea that there is any law enforcement benefit in the deployment of horseback patrols. That is purely a tourist expense, hid under the umbrella of law enforcement. Much of it could be used as a general homestead for residents. If in 2011 it would be trimmed from $1.2 million to $500,000, then we would have enough money to fund a homestead discount in 2012. I have heard of no plan to reduce this budget item in the five year plan, so this would apply for five years out as well as today. With $500,000 we should have plenty of visible mounted patrols in pretty red jackets to give the township its "personality". Just put them in the right places - where people walk (but not parking lots). Put them in places for physical presence at events where people gather and along paths in Town Center, strictly for visibility. Put them under the jurisdiction and management of tourism, not law enforcement. They are patrolling to attract visitors. Let's find out if they really do that.