Much has been made this past election cycle about the community’s lack of trust in the city council and mayor’s office. How did this become an issue, how does it get resolved?
First, start with the economy; indeed, always start with the economy when dealing with trust in government. Maslow’s hierarchy of need places life’s essentials at the bottom of his pyramid: food, clothing and shelter, followed by basic safety and security issues. In an economic crisis, one’s ability to meet these needs comes into question. During the past three years, thousands in our community have lost their jobs. In September 2007 employment in the Colorado Springs MSA reached a peak of 292,274. In February 2011 that figure had dropped to 264,292, a decline of nearly 28,000 jobs over three and a half years. Today, probably everyone in Colorado Springs knows someone who has lost a job, and knows of many more that are unemployed or underemployed. That kind of economic decline affects not only those who are out of work and looking, but those who remain employed and wonder, “Am I next?” It also affects their view of those in office. After all, aren’t community leaders supposed to make sure there are enough jobs to go around?
Secondly, leadership is a human relationship. And as with all human relationships, a large part of its foundation lies in communication. The leader must not only speak to the community, he must also listen to the community. Engage it in dialogue. Understand the hopes, dreams, fears and concerns. On March 31, 2008, City Council approved the USOC deal. At the time, it was widely praised and acclaimed as a coup, keeping the organization here in Colorado Springs; preventing its move to any one of many other courting cities. Sixteen months later, City Council was forced to reexamine and restructure the collapsing deal. However, by late summer of 2009, the economy was in a free fall. Against that backdrop, shelling out millions to one employer looked like the kind of sweetheart deal one insider gives to another, while thousands in the community stood in unemployment lines and bought food with government scrip. City Council appeared to be ignoring or at least deaf to the community. Council had lost the dialogue, the conversation, the relationship.
The advantage of a representative democracy is that it forces the renewal of that dialogue. Candidates must campaign, meet people, listen and search for the message that resonates with electorate. The conversation is restarted. Groups that usually never consider a council member as a speaker, now actively seek out the candidates as part of their program. Candidates similarly seek out groups to engage in conversation. The winning candidates are typically those most successful at establishing a meaningful exchange, at winning the trust of the electorate. The challenge, following the election, is finding ways to continue the conversation.