El Paso — Affordable Steps to Renewal — #7 A Voice for the Commons

This came in from Jerry Kurtyka:


# 7 A Voice for the Commons

Earlier, before my life went into the cosmic Cuisinart last summer, I wrote about “The Commons” as a social matrix – law, education, moral norms, family relations, social capital, government, finance, physical infrastructure, care for children, the aged and ill – in which a private business economy is embedded and without which, there is little productive activity other than barter. If you think of the city as a Maslow Pyramid, then the business that you think you built by yourself is sandwiched a couple of layers up from the bottom and a couple of layers down from the top of that pyramid. That social “sandwich” contains the Commons and I want to lay out some ideas here about how we can tap into it as a source of renewal. But first we have to protect it.

We need more Commons people here to create and nurture an active Commons while there is still time and before it is sequestered into private hands, like the stadium has already done sequestering a part of our tax base – the HOT – into private hands under the oxymoron of a “public/private partnership.” Wherever you look, you will find that these pseudo partnerships offload risk and costs to the Commons while keeping the profits in private hands, i.e., trickle-up economics. This is happening all over the world now, fueled by an elite donor class that seemingly owns governments at all levels, thanks to a dumbed down electorate and their surrogates, like our previous city manager and council. Don’t be fooled by the Koch brothers’ capitalism-free-markets narrative that is only a cover story for what is really going on as more and more of our public spaces – physical, social and financial – are privatized. What do you think the Transpacific Partnership is about? Only clueless saps have to actually compete in a marketplace; the donor elite has learned how to avoid competition by paying off government to tilt the table in their favor. When the SCOTUS ruled that corporations are people, the rest of us became a little less human.

So, can we give a voice to our Commons people and what they might tell us versus the official “Field of Dreams” narrative now embraced by our city leadership? What would that voice say? What initiatives could we undertake to counter the real agenda going on under our noses? Below are a few ideas and suggestions of my own:

  1. Thought leadership – establish a local independent policy think tank to vet city initiatives and to run an alternative leadership training program – Cities 101- that would train public servants and private sector leaders in sustainability principles, urban design, systems thinking, cross-cultural understanding, change management and capacity-building; a sort of un-Chamber of Commerce. I mean, Six Sigma hasn’t exactly worked as a change strategy for city hall unless you believe the current CM and his credibility is waning lately. Even Cortney Niland doesn’t believe him anymore! UTEP can’t do this for us, either; Natalcio is too baked into the local power elite and Foster is her boss on the Board of Regents (Hunt was earlier). UTEP does not have enough independence, though there are good scholars at UTEP who could do this but they won’t now. UTEP isn’t Berkeley.
  2. Encourage an independent and adversarial local English language daily paper by pressuring businesses to pull their ads from the EP Times that has become the de facto PIO for city hall and its Borderplex bosses. What a great opportunity for some of UTEP’s journalism grads to undertake versus selling their souls to the local drive-by media. Combine this with a citizenship education initiative so we get at least as many voters to turn out for an election as do for a mariachi festival. La Fe and the Library would be my choices for the right people to run the latter.
  1. Localize the food and fiber industry. Implement a local closed-loop farming and fiber industry here as part of a resiliency strategy. Link this to the water issue:
  • Encourage a permaculture organic food industry here by having the school districts purchase produce from it as a cooperative. There is a built-in local market of 100,000 meals per day to counter the toxic nacho and slurpy diet our kids currently eat. It would keep our food money circulating locally, too. The alternative is our current water-hungry agriculture like cotton, pecans and alfalfa, but even some of that could stay here as commercial linen produced for the thousands of hospital and hotel rooms here.
  1. Skip the vanity projects. Focus on qualitative growth and design. I found this quote on the website of the Center for Ecoliteracy and it resonates with me: The notion of “growth which enhances life” is what is meant by qualitative growth — growth that enhances the quality of life. In living organisms, ecosystems, and societies, qualitative growth includes an increase in complexity, sophistication, and maturity. Unlimited quantitative growth on a finite planet is clearly unsustainable, but qualitative economic growth can be sustained if it involves a dynamic balance between growth, decline, and recycling, and if it also includes the inner growth of learning and maturing. Beto O’Rourke and Martin Parades are correct on this point: El Paso is the American face of Mexico, the Big Burrito, so take advantage of it. It is a business and military, not a tourist destination and it doesn’t need a soccer team or trolley. Stop obsessing about identity because “It’s all good” only makes city hall look dumber than it already is. We do need:
  • Green trade corridors that keep the polluting, unsafe Mexican trucks off of our roads;
  • Quality infrastructure in our roads and bridges; filled potholes and faultless flushes instead of RBIs;
  • High-speed (300 MBS) ubiquitous broadband like Google is now building in Austin and Kansas City;
  • Let Loop 375 be the constraining edge that we now infill, subject to Plan El Paso;
  • Protect the mountain slopes from development on both sides north of Transmountain Road and make El Paso a national example of environmental protection and open space, perhaps the one thing we could do well on that stage.
  1. Leverage opportunities for government functional consolidation and transparency:
  • A consolidated city-county IT and data communication authority could leverage its purchasing power to muscle carriers into providing us better cell and data service (El Paso is ranked worst in the top 50 US cities); a total fiber network linking all public facilities including schools and local NGOs;
  • Open Data not Open Records. Have the city make its entire electronic data base of emails, phone calls, financial reports and public safety incidents open to searchable online public access. Encourage scholars to analyze this data and make recommendations for operational improvement. There should be no expectation of privacy in city hall in the post-Wilson era;
  • Change the city charter to a strong mayor format with a COO vs the current CM structure and a powerless mayor. Let’s face it, after ten years the CC has failed to figure out how to work with a CM, so scrap it and give us back accountability. The CM is the one major point-of-failure in city hall and CC hasn’t a clue what to do about it.
  1. Create an economic space for private enterprise instead of crowding it out with public employment entitlements:
  • Freeze public salaries for five years to enable the private sector to catch up with the overly-rich pay and benefits of city and county employees;
  • Stop city pensions; convert existing vested pensions to annuities; offer 401Ks like business does now; no healthcare promise for retirees who will have to rely on Medicare like their private sector counterparts;
  • Return the city to a 5-day work week like the rest of the El Paso pickup truck economy.
  1. We need a local Tea Party – the Tequila Rebellion – that will organize candidate slates who promise to endorse a “Contract with El Paso” that commits to:
  • Fiscal responsibility (pay-as-you-go) financing and transparency;
  • Limit executive session to what the law requires, not because discussion might embarrass someone or give the city attorney heartburn;
  • Deconstruct the welfare state here that floats too many donor class boats; start with HACEP and its welfare hatchery tax-credit projects;
  • Screw the DTEP tax leeches (you-know-who) and make them redevelop their vacant buildings or demolish them;
  • Endorse strategies #1- #6 above. Too bad the Shaplites sold out to Woody World and didn’t do this here. They could have made themselves immortal instead of irrelevant.

OK, will all of that make the Big Burrito a place urban hipsters and retirees will flock to? No, but it’s not a donor class welfare program, either, and that might keep us from eventual bankruptcy and preserve what is left of our Commons. Also, it might make the average Jose and his family a little more prosperous in the next generation.

NEXT and LAST – #8 Theories of Change

12 Responses to El Paso — Affordable Steps to Renewal — #7 A Voice for the Commons

  1. Carlos in El Paso says:

    Jerry, you had me until the point about needing a local Tea Party, what with pledges and other opportunities for politicians to score political points by promising something they have no intent to deliver.

    And given the rotten state of the Tea Party nationwide, with their penchant for carryng the water for billionaires, who have done as much to put us the sitiation we’re in right now, the very last thing El Paso needs are Bible-thumping hypocrites from the Tea Party.

    What you’re saying we need is a libertarian utopia, which is as attainable as hordes of tourists from the streetcar project.

    At this point, given the state of local politics, I don’t have an idea how to get us out of this quagmire.

    But Happy New Year!



  2. Local think tank? Been tried many times, and either turns into another arm of the good ol’ boy network, or otherwise fails. Independent and adversarial newspaper? Great idea in 1965, but newspapers just do not generate the kind of revenue that today’s greedy corporations demand, so this is a no starter. No comment regarding the food stuff or most of the infrastructure. We cannot reasonably set any boundary, such as Loop 375, in an atmosphere that constantly demands growth. I’m all for dumping the failed CM form of government, but where the hell are we going to find a strong Mayor? City pensions should be set up more like the State of Texas, where the employer matches up to a point, and if private salaries are so far behind in El Paso, that might just explain why this city is not stacking up well against others. And, please, no Tea Party BS ’round here.


  3. Xavier Miranda says:

    Outstanding suggestions. Collective input would hone where appropriate, but the template is initiated. Thank you.
    Xavier Miranda


  4. archaic578 says:

    In what months were the previous seven blogs by Jerry Kurtyka? I’d like to read the others.


  5. Helen Marshall says:

    Without comment on the rest for the time being except to say “kudos,” will just say that after six years of experience with Medicare, mostly as a cancer patient, it is an excellent system and any retiree should be happy to have it. We just have to protect it from the privatizers.


  6. ManintheMoon says:

    Jerry K
    Sorry it will never happen because most in the city and county will not get involved or dirty their hands. They want a few to do the work and make it happen in what you have put forth a few can’t do it.
    If the majority actually wanted change you would see over flow crowds at the City and County meetings and a line out the door wanting to speak to give the CC or CCC a piece of their mind.
    Sorry the majority of the population are just lazy when it come to their responsibilities and duties as citizens to their own governance.
    If people really cared in El Paso or the County they would be getting their pitch forks and torches out( metaphorically speaking) surrounding City Hall and the County Court House.
    Let be honest Jerry K the majority like it the way it is with the low level corruption that goes on daily. Elected and appointed officials acting as want a be minor potentates and little demigods lording over the ignorant masses of El Paso. Hey it cultural, traditional and historical, it the way it has always operated in El Paso.
    Our local media is no longer the drive by media it’s the fly by media because driving by was just to damn slow!


  7. elrichiboy says:

    That is some enlightened thinking. Bravo.


  8. Reality Checker says:

    Excellent thoughts. I might disagree with a couple of the solutions and details, but overall you are right on the money. My biggest concern is that these kinds of things take time and the money machine is so far down the track and now controls so much, that it might be too little too late.


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