Initiative looks to improve local government
by Mike Sharkey
For two days over the weekend, several of Jacksonville’s elected and appointed officials gathered at the University of North Florida for a comprehensive look at how the State and City function in an effort to hopefully govern better in the future.
Sponsored through a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, the initiative was called “Foundations of Local Government.” Dr. Matt Corrigan, chair of political science and public administration at the University of North Florida, served as host for the Friday and Saturday program that included local speakers as well and those from across the state. Invitees included City Council members, the City’s Constitutional officers, School Board member and those appointed to the boards of the City’s independent agencies.
The program was modeled after two other similar initiatives: a seminar on transition and leadership for newly-elected mayors at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Local Leaders Academy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Both are designed to serve as educational tools for elected officials after they get into office.
“This is an exciting project for us,” said Corrigan. “We really think it’s important. We want to establish the initiative, see it grow and move on.”
Corrigan, who studies state and local politics, said the current recession isn’t as bad as the Great Depression was, however in order to come out of it and grow the economy, elected officials across the state must be prepared to perhaps govern in unconventional ways.
“It’s an important point in history to think about governing,” he said. “It’s time to establish continuing education for elected officials and those newly-elected.”
Corrigan called those who attended “pioneers” and saw the two-day conference as an opportunity for members of governmental entities who otherwise might not talk about local issues to hear about issues that affect them all and then discuss those issues. Friday morning’s session included City Council members Dr. Johnny Gaffney, Clay Yarborough, Ray Holt and Michael Corrigan, School Board members Martha Barrett and Vicki Drake, Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland, Property Appraiser Jim Overton, Jacksonville Aviation Authority Board member Debra Durham-Pass, JEA Board member Jim Gilmore and JTA Board member Cleve Warren.
Corrigan stressed with such a diverse group on hand and those expected over the two days, he did not intend to inject any policy into the agenda.
“I’m not asking for anything,” he said, adding the idea is to provide the tools for each to take back to their respective entities.
Sherry Magill, president of the duPont Fund, said the two-day meeting may or may prove beneficial.
“This is an experiment,” she said. “You may decide it’s a waste of time and energy. We entered into this conversation in an effort to get people to think together and help Jacksonville.”
Corrigan called the current situation “uncharted territory” and an “opportunity for innovation and new ways to govern.”
Much of the focus of the conversation centered on the economy. Both the State and the City are facing a crisis, that according to Dr. Robert Bradley of the Askew School at Florida State, is going to get worse before it gets better. He puts a majority of the blame on the shortfall in Medicaid which will be about $1.8 billion next year.
“We don’t have enough to cover just Medicaid,” he said of the State budget for 2010-11. “It has been eating our lunch for years in Florida. We also will spend $783 million in K-12 education. The situation is only going to get worse in 2012.”
Bradley said high unemployment and a decreasing population are combining to create an economic scenario that isn’t sustainable unless creative ways to fund line-items and govern on the local and state level are discovered.
“Florida has generally been a real jobs producer, not high-paying jobs, but jobs,” said Bradley. “But, in 41 of 67 counties, unemployment is in double digits. In the Fort Myers/Naples area, it’s up around 20 percent.”
Former Mayor and current UNF President John Delaney believes the state’s 10 universities hold the key to turning the economy around.
“We’ve got to do something about a new economy. It’s not going to be manufacturing,” he said. “It’s going to be a knowledge economy. If we double what we spend on higher education, what would happen? It really could make Florida like a large Silicon Valley with our 10 universities scattered all over the state.
“I’m really convinced that through colleges and universities, we can discover a breakthrough in how to better teach 8 year-olds like there was a breakthrough in dealing with polio.”