The Test of Time

August 2015
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

At first glance, this month’s feature articles may not seem to have much to do with one another. But in fact, they share a common element: time. Quick fixes are rare in government; the things that matter most take a long time to get done. In Liz Farmer’s article on social impact bonds, for example, she writes that while the bonds are a very hot idea right now, no such project has reached its end date yet, so nobody knows if any of them has officially “worked” or not. It might take decades for the real results to become apparent.

Similarly, Daniel C. Vock, in his story about light rail in the Sun Belt, writes about early signs that Phoenix’s project is having a positive impact. But as even proponents acknowledge, we won’t really know for many years. Then there’s Chris Kardish’s feature on Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, a progressive who, despite an impressive set of accomplishments, is under fire from his left for not moving fast enough.

John Buntin’s cover feature is about the success that Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman is having in diverting the mentally ill from jail and into treatment. Incarcerating the mentally ill is inhumane and expensive, and yet in this country every year 2 million people with serious mental illnesses end up behind bars. At a recent Governing event in Texas, I asked Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez what her biggest challenge was. Her quick reply was mental health. Leifman seems to have cracked the code on this problem, with results so dramatic that the county was able to close one of its five jail facilities.

But this didn’t happen quickly. Leifman’s first exposure to problems with the way government handles the mentally ill came in 1973, when he was interning for a state senator and was sent to check out a constituent issue at a state mental hospital. In 1994, as acting chief of the county court division, he tried to organize a conversation among judges, prosecutors and police chiefs to discuss the issue. Nobody showed up. He became a judge in 1996 and has been working actively on mental health issues since 2000.

The big issues take time, a tough commodity to come by in politics. Often the counsel to be patient and go slowly comes from those who actually don’t want things to change. But a lot can be accomplished with persistence and resilience. Leifman didn’t quit when no one turned up for his meeting. He knew that locking people up for mental health problems was insane and that eventually others would join him in changing things. That’s leadership.