Christy: Follow the money

Tom Christy

Money - or resources if you prefer a sanitary term - is the foundation of society.

Whether it's how you run your home or how you run your city, the acquisition and distribution of money are some of the most important decisions made. Upon those decisions rests comfort or despair. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.

What we constantly need to be reminded of is that we are completely responsible for our own comfort or despair. You cannot live here and complain about crime, potholes or casino’s as if they are someone else’s job. Niagara Falls has resources. Vast resources. It uses them as six people see fit (mayor, council). Six people we’ve given our proxy to. The result is the city we have. Period.

Those six people aren’t czars. They don’t have unlimited powers. They are brave enough to put their names on their actions. If you scratch the surface, you find those six often have to answer to state government and its vast array of public authorities. People who don’t often put their names on their decisions. Then, if you scratch a bit further, you find the state is operating in a system of federal rules and regulations and nobody at that level wants their name used. Welcome to the complexity and opacity of civics.

So, when deciding what our expectations are for this city, we need to unwind this twisted ball of string and figure out who does what, and who ultimately decides.

A guy called me the other day and wanted to talk about the city budget. “We need the equivalency of a budget summit. Department heads, city employees, small business owners and residents all talking about two things: what basic services are appropriate for Niagara Falls and how are we going to pay for those levels of service." He also touched on the need for direction. “Our city needs to have a clear vision of where it wants to be in the short, mid and long-term future and make that well known to all who view our city."

That guy turned out to be John Spanbauer, a lifelong Niagara Falls resident, retired Niagara University administrator, former YMCA director of program operations who was involved with several non-profit organizations over the years. He didn’t start thinking about the community yesterday. He’s been at this a while. He’s also a first-time politician, running for city council this year.

“I think if I can just tell people how important the budget process is I can win,” he said. 

Wrong. Nobody cares. It’s too complex, they have lives to live. The average voter wants scandal wrapped in an American flag. And the average vote usually depends on the dirty end of the money discussion: what’s in it for me.

But by God, I want to be wrong about that. It would be a revelation if people were informed about the budget, followed their councilperson’s every vote and discussed goals and outcomes. That’s a city which can thrive and grow. And in 2019 there’s no reason we can’t strive for that. And it’s why I came away rooting for the type of campaign John is running. I absolutely do not care WHO wins an election, but I absolutely think we should root for elections to be discussions on important topics.

“I want to win. But mostly I don’t want the campaign to end. The people I meet and the conversations we have are intoxicating and addicting. I guess I never had time before to consider running for office and getting involved at this level, but now that I have it’s one of the most important things I can think of doing with the rest of my life”.

Bingo. You had me at hello as they say. Love of discussion, not necessarily dogma. This is why the civics project is using the campaign season to ask people about their expectations for the city of Niagara Falls. It’s the time of year most people think about civics.

We are so much closer to each other than we realize, but politics can make minor differences into civil wars. Just like the mafia, when we’re fighting we’re not earning. Peace and harmony bring so much greater wealth opportunities than personal wars.

So while I’m rooting for the type of campaign that John is pursuing, I’m also going to publicly encourage him to join The Civics Project. If John Spanbauer wins a city council seat by basing his campaign on informing the public about city government, that might be a good thing for the city. But if he doesn’t win, can he be just as effective spending the next four years educating us about city government, bringing people together around a fiscal plan, and lobbying for changes? It seems like the only difference in those two scenarios is a small paycheck. The work and benefit to the community is otherwise the same.

“Since I announced my candidacy, I have tried to educate myself on the city budget and on the other intricacies of city management. But I do understand that as a novice politician I am not an expert and have much more to learn," he said. 

Don’t we all?

This is the essence of civics. All of us are smarter than any of us. If John will take the knowledge he’s accumulating and share the findings with us, can we ask any more of anyone?

The civics takeaway: knowledge needs no title. In civics, everyone’s opinion matters, and every ounce of energy is an important resource. Our proxy vote on who makes city decisions has consequences. Use it wisely, but use it. The level of comfort or despair is directly tied to it.

The Civics Project is an organization founded to further the education of the public to their civic responsibilities. For further information or to become involved visit www.thecivicsproject.org. Mr. Christy can be reached via email at tom@thecivicsproject.org.

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