Déjà vu, all over again

By Pam Goronkin

The kids are back in school. Not mine; they’re grown now.  But I fondly remember the days of summer ending and the school year beginning.  Shaking off the bad habits of the lazy-hazy-crazy-days of summer took some effort, but “getting ready” was made easier by the excitement of something new.

The children were literally bright with optimism and expectation, plus a sense of adventure and opportunity. A new beginning!

Reminds me, actually, of the mood on Tempe City Council right now. By charter, Tempe has no “summer break” as most cities in the region do. But we certainly have a more leisurely calendar over the summer months, permitting councilmembers and staff alike to enjoy some much-needed time with family and friends.

Between the heat and the slower pace, lethargy becomes ambrosia. But we know lethargy won’t last (yawn) as, even on the edge of consciousness, fuzzy images are morphing into future dreams and next exploits. Anticipation lurks.

It’s all about “getting ready.”

This year in particular, with the first change in the mayor’s office in 10 years, the Council has been bright with optimism and expectation, plus a sense of adventure and opportunity, as we anticipated our annual retreat Aug. 27 and 28.

This year’s retreat was, in some respects, a “getting-to-know-you” event as the Council worked to establish relationships with Mayor Hugh Hallman and new Councilmember Hut Hutson. Neither of these individuals comes to the Council’s work as a stranger. Each has a record of community service that includes Mayor Hallman’s four years of prior Council experience.

Their roles in the community are now different, however. Their very presence on the Council will change the dynamic. 

Ever been the “new kid” in school?  Ever been the one to welcome the “new kid?” Depending on which side of this equation you’ve found yourself, experience informs us that changes like this are interesting, exciting and full of potential. Also unnerving, disorienting and threatening to the status quo; angels fear to tread!

The retreat no doubt revealed a measure of “territory marking.” But our retreat should also be remembered as including a larger measure of welcoming the experience and ideas and personalities of our newest members.

Tasked by the voters to forge a working relationship that brings all our best ideas to benefit Tempe, Council has historically used the retreat to define what our goals and objectives should be in the light of Tempe’s current challenges. 

And Tempe certainly has challenges. Pam’s assessment of the top three? 

1. Eroding General Fund sales tax revenues due to competition from bordering cities;

2. Aging neighborhoods and disinvestment in a “built-out city; and

3. Increasing urbanization.

At the retreat, I expressed these views, along with some ideas for addressing them, just as my colleagues expressed theirs. Only a frank, impersonalized discussion can ferret out these priorities. Important questions must be answered: 

Where can Tempe excel (as compared with other cities in the region)?  What are we passionate about as a community?  What drives Tempe’s economic engine? 

In Jim Collins current bestseller, Good to Great, his study reveals that companies who achieve sustained success stick to a “hedgehog concept” based on the answers to questions such as these, along with the discipline to stay the course.

Creative discipline is required just to determine the answers! This may be especially true in a political environment, where elected officials have differing passions or constituencies or have made “campaign promises.”

As I stated during my own campaign, Tempe must focus on its priorities because we will surely fail if we try to do it all.

Though not specifically required by Tempe’s Charter, previous mayors have sometimes used subcommittees as a way of organizing the Council’s efforts toward its goals. And the Council retreat has served as the means by which a “scope of work” is assigned to these efforts. 

Mayor Hallman has expressed a desire to utilize Council subcommittees, and these were due to be tasked at the retreat. Less important to me is who will lead the efforts of these committees.  If the Council identifies the right priorities, the right leaders will emerge to address those priorities.

Forging working relationships with Council colleagues seems the antithesis of what politicians do: campaign.

By its nature, campaigning is “competing,” sometimes with the very people with whom you will later serve. At this retreat, it was my hope that Council members would forego competing in favor of seeking “collegiality,” or shared authority. 

The retreat was not about campaigning nor was it designed to be a showcase for any particular individual.

In addition to assessing Tempe’s reality, at the retreat we must establish the values we will share as colleagues.  The standards we establish for our work together and with staff will be the true underpinnings of our success. We must be a team.

In fact, Mayor Hallman labeled this retreat a “Team Summit.”  Most of us have been a member of a team, either in sports or at work, or both.

With shared values and shared goals, and by treating each other with courtesy, respect and honesty, Tempe City Council can create a “team.”

As defined by Webster’s Dictionary, the word “summit” means “the highest point.”  I truly hope that Tempe City Council’s “Team Summit” is NOT the highest point, but rather a launch pad for the great work we will do on Tempe’s behalf.  A new beginning.