Councilors Should Let Others Do Their Homework

I’m opposed to the year-round school calendar, for the same reasons that proponents favor it. They decry the lost momentum for learning and the legitimization of laziness. I believe those breaks are necessary for children to reflect on what they’ve learned, consolidate what matters to them, and — yes — forget most of the rest.

If you hope ever to do work that involves genuine problem-solving, you must learn to harness the power of so-called laziness. We busy ourselves with operational questions of what, who, when and where — but that leaves precious little mental space to consider how and why. The sad result is that we often do things well that don’t need doing.

I bring this up right now not because students are beginning their summer recess. They haven’t yet been talked out of the value of doing nothing. I’m thinking instead about the Eugene City Council. Sure, they always take August off and that’s a good start. But I’m begging our elected leaders to slack off more during these long summer days.

Ironically, if they do less work, more work might get done. Not every good thing in life has to be hard.

They’ve seen this strategy work. Faced with a decaying street grid after years of neglected maintenance, these leaders campaigned for dedicated road funding. That was the hard part, and voters responded affirmatively. Then came the easy part. They appointed a committee to sift through the data and begin scheduling repairs. Bids came in below estimates, work was done quickly and efficiently, and every part of town saw improvements.

When it came time to extend the program’s financing, citizens voted in even larger numbers to continue the work. It’s important to acknowledge the important role the city’s top political representatives assumed in this success story. They appointed citizens to do the work, provided policy directives, and then stayed out of their way.

This council understands better than others in our recent past that strength is more important than power. By relinquishing some power, they have gained the strength of public support. They’ve been able to accomplish more by actually doing less of the work themselves.

If it worked with potholes, it can work with the Urban Growth Boundary. Oregon’s visionary land-use laws require cities to set aside urban lands to accommodate growth projections for the next twenty years. Local citizens plunged into the complexities of the process over four years ago.

Envision Eugene began with 80 civic leaders meeting in a church gymnasium. We knew then that finding common ground between all participants would require an act of faith. We also understood that if we stayed in our comfortable and opposing camps, any vision of community consensus didn’t have a prayer.

After several months, smaller groups formed to dig more deeply into the data. Everyone pushed beyond their comfort zones and learned how to identify the values we all share when we “envision Eugene.”

Some would say the group itself did something miraculous. Conservationists and developers broke bread together. Both the Homebuilders Association and 1,000 Friends of Oregon sent representatives.

A “Technical Resource Group” dug into the data itself. No one was allowed to hide behind vague platitudes, sweeping generalizations, or aspirational assertions.

Not every residential infill project will degrade a neighborhood’s character. Not every brownfield should be redeveloped for our industrial land needs.

This group looked at individual tax lots. They couldn’t have gotten any more detailed in their analysis without violating people’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy in their own homes. Any agreements that brought these civic leaders together are rooted in facts on the ground. This is not a case of summer Kumbaya.

These volunteers have invested tens of thousands of hours studying almost every scenario for urban growth that’s been imagined. They’ve sought out experts, weighed competing opinions, discussed their findings with one another, and kept at it for several years. If any group has ever done their homework, this is it.

Eugene City Council should recognize the immense effort behind each recommendation coming from this group, resisting the temptation to redo the work themselves.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) has been active in Envision Eugene, but was not a member of the Technical Resource Group. He writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.