Assessments

Why Political Machines Were Good for Government

Of all the columns I have written for this magazine over the past 24 years, the one that brought the biggest response by far was a column on political patronage. Actually, it was a defense of political patronage. Most readers hated it. Sorting through dozens of letters and emails, I found only one that agreed with my point of view. Everybody else seemed to feel I was defending corruption and insulting the principles of merit and integrity that a decent democratic government ought to strive for.

The background was this: In 2004, Ernie Fletcher took over as the first Republican governor of Kentucky in 32 years. He proceeded to hand out jobs all over the state to GOP loyalists, not just in the higher reaches of public office but in every one of the 120 counties of the commonwealth as well. Anybody who wanted to fill a vacancy on a highway crew or in a state welfare office had to survive an eight-step hiring process that included getting the approval of the governor’s designated Republican contact in the applicant’s county. READ MORE

One Iconoclast’s Blunt Message on Transportation Funding

It would be easy to dismiss Charles Marohn as a crank. At a time when half of Washington is batting around numbers that purport to reveal how much money Congress should spend to save the nation’s troubled transportation system, Marohn is suggesting the simplest number of all: zero. What the system needs, Marohn says, isn’t a big infusion of cash, but a thorough examination of what it ought to be doing in the first place. Barring such an examination, he wouldn’t give the transportation system a dime.

Marohn is an unrepentant iconoclast, but he is no crank. He is a soft-spoken civil engineer from small-town Minnesota who spent most of two decades giving local governments conventional advice on how to build and repair roads, sidewalks and bridges. His solutions came straight out of the Green Book, published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the bible that engineers all over the country use in dealing with transportation issues. But eventually he decided that his advice wasn’t worth much. He was telling communities to build high-speed streets and highways that were neither attractive nor safe. What the local residents really needed, Marohn came to believe, was less-intrusive, lower-speed infrastructure that fostered human-scale street life and a safe pedestrian presence. READ MORE

How Well Can a City Predict Its Future 20 Years Out?

Twenty years ago, Seattle was America’s epicenter of urban planning. Its mayor, Norm Rice, had sponsored and guided into law a long-range blueprint that laid out in copious detail what the city was projected to look like in the faraway year of 2014.

According to Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, as the document was officially known, the city would emerge from a period of slow growth and increase its population significantly in the ensuing two decades. It would use its planning tools to direct the new growth into 39 “urban villages” scattered across the city. These communities would gradually evolve into urbanist showplaces: compact enclaves organized around walkable streets, neighborhood commerce, reliable public transportation and abundant green space. Elements of the plan seemed to come straight out of the writings of Jane Jacobs, the author of the influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. READ MORE

When Does Politicians' Unethical Behavior Become a Crime?

Many years ago, I spent a morning in the Pima County courthouse in Tucson, Ariz., talking politics with Conrad Joyner, one of the county supervisors. Joyner was running for Congress. I asked him if he expected to have any trouble raising money for his campaign. Joyner looked at me as if I had been born yesterday. “Are you kidding?” he said. “With all the zoning cases I’ve got coming up on the county board?”

I walked out of that courthouse trying to make sense of what I had just heard. Joyner seemed to be telling me he planned to extort campaign money from real estate developers who wanted his vote. Or maybe he just wanted the developers to think his vote was for sale so that he could pocket the money for his campaign and then vote his conscience. Either way, there was something sleazy about it. But if there were no conversations about a deal and no quid pro quo, the law couldn’t touch it. That didn’t seem quite right. READ MORE

Is Education Reform Worth the Demise of Neighborhood Schools?

A couple of years ago, an Arkansas legislator named Reginald Murdock began paying attention to the school buses that plied the highways around his state. Some of them seemed to be on the road for a disturbingly long time, subjecting their student riders to extended periods each day when they couldn’t do much except sit.

Murdock introduced a bill that called for a study of just how much time Arkansas kids were spending on buses. The results came back last summer, and they startled a lot of people. The median-length trip to public school -- one-way -- was 47 minutes. The average pupil was on board for more than an hour and a half in the course of a normal day. At the outer edge of the survey, there were children who recorded daily bus travel times of 5 hours and 34 minutes round-trip. The problem existed not only in remote rural counties but also in the urbanized area around Little Rock, where kids were riding long distances to magnet schools. Solving it would require money for extra buses and additional drivers that the state educational system had shown no willingness to provide. READ MORE