Cities as Responsible Adults

Cities as Responsible Adults

By the time I was 18, I was ready to take responsibility for the achievement of my goals. Perhaps more accurately, I thought I was ready to do so. My parents would continue to provide the financial support I needed to complete my undergraduate education, however, and the various jobs I held from the ages of 18 to 22 would be more about defraying my personal expenses than paying the core bills of tuition, housing, fees and the meal plan that kept my skin and bones together.

Still, I think I had the right attitude . . . for the most part. I generally stayed in my budget and made efficient progress toward graduation. Toward the end of this period of somewhat autonomous living, I took the bold and somewhat unpopular step of getting married. Still in college, and with grad school ahead, my decision was considered imprudent by my parents, and it led (appropriately, as I thought then and I think now) to my parents reducing but not eliminating my support until I completed my B.A., and to the elimination of financial support thereafter.

My parents didn’t “cut me off.” They also didn’t do any of this out of spite or malice. No harsh words were uttered, either by me or by my parents, though there were some difficult conversations about my decision to marry. Today, I’ll add, my parents adore my wife and appreciate the choices Carol and I have made. The disagreements were short-lived; the love and respect have endured.

Part of what made this work out was my parents’ combination of firm purpose and capacity to weigh the options dispassionately. Part of what made this work, if I may say so, was that Carol and I had the same attributes as my parents and brought them to this conversation.

Fundamentally, what made it work was mutual love and respect, on the one hand, Carol’s and my acceptance that the goals we sought to achieve were our responsibility, not my parents’.

These memories come to mind in part because my wife and I are approaching our 35th wedding anniversary. They also come to mind because we have launched, and are launching, our own children. Sometimes, that’s been all smooth sailing. Sometimes, there have been rough seas. But launching is still the goal; stormy weather only means we provide some extra support to get through to calmer seas.

But I think a third reason is that the more-or-less orderly transfer of responsibility and authority from parent to child might be a very helpful model as cities strive to sail through the rough seas afforded us by a changed global and domestic economy and the failures of our leaders in Washington. And as we approach the 45th anniversary of our state’s constitution (ratified by the voters on November 5, 1968), perhaps the model applies equally to our relationship with the state.

Cities are, in their way, the “offspring” of our federal system. Cities are creatures of state law, though in states like Florida, that law allows citizens to decide to be responsible for their community’s fate by chartering a city, rather than waiting on the state to create one. The analogy breaks down a bit here (I’m not sure who the “parents” are, and who the midwife is), but the essential notion of cities acquiring responsibility for themselves, like young adults, seems on target.

Unfortunately, even with the constitutional protection of home rule Florida’s cities enjoy, establishing themselves as “responsible adults” in the system continues to be thwarted by legislative “parents” who are unwilling to trust their children, even the mature cities across this state who have demonstrated, year-in and year-out, the capacity to balance their budgets and serve their citizens at least as well as the state.

To some extent, we share the blame for these entangling apron strings. How often have we, as cities, asked the state to solve our problems for us? How often, when we have disputes, do we seek resolution through the state’s courts? Then there are those municipal leaders who, sadly, have behaved like adolescents with the house keys and no parents at home, partying on the public dime or lining their pockets with the proceeds of illicit deals.

Shame on us.

We don’t need the feds or the state to remind us of our ethical obligations. We also don’t need them to resolve our internal disputes, or even those that pit one city against another. And we don’t need them to pay for the things our citizens need or want; choosing what we should pay for, and what we can’t afford, is part of the conversation we can (and must) have with our citizens.

It’s a more complicated task than I have sketched out here. I’ll address some of those complications in the future. But for now, perhaps, we would do well to consider how best to cut the apron strings and become the responsible adults in our federal system that the drafters of our state constitution imagined.

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