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    Where mayors meet to teach each other how to innovate

    A growing organization helps mayors to share innovative ideas for a progressive economy.

    Seattle City Hall.

    Seattle City Hall. Rootology/Wikipedia

    MADISON — There are COWS in the Sewell Social Science building on the campus of the University of Wisconsin here. That probably doesn’t come as a surprise, given Wisconsin’s reputation as “America’s Dairyland.” But it’s not the kind of cows you would expect. COWS is an acronym for the Center On Wisconsin Strategy. For the past 20 years it has been an epicenter for promoting and disseminating “high road” solutions to a wide array of social, economic, and environmental problems.

    The idea behind “high road” solutions is based on a set of values — a focus on equity, sustainability, and democracy. And closely allied, implementation strategies to improve the efficiency and productivity of government. It is about creating “an appropriate infrastructure for a progressive economy,” says Joel Rogers, COWS Director. “People have lost faith in government and our democratic institutions. Part of what COWS does is focus on inventories and benchmarks and then help to find ways to reduce waste, add value, and then capture and share the benefits for all. We are a think-and-do tank.”

    COWS has a variety of programs that address topics such as improving job quality, promoting innovation in clean and efficient energy, and providing progressive policy options to state governments and their departments of transportation. One program that is getting increasing attention and having a growing impact is the Mayors Innovation Project
    The Mayors Innovation Project (MIP) was launched in 2005 by COWS and the former mayor of Madison, Dave Cieslewicz. The concept is simple — provide a place where mayors can meet, face-to-face, to exchange ideas about policies and practices. “If all you do is come to the office every day and get on a treadmill, after a while you stop seeing things with fresh eyes. And that’s deadly. The Mayor’s Innovation Project gets you out of your routine, off the treadmill,” said Cieslewicz.

    The MIP is “a group of people that want to do good things in their cities, want to think about policies and how they apply, and how they can make their cities better on a day-to-day basis,” adds Satya Rhodes-Conway, the senior associate who oversees the project. She adds that COWS strives to make the environment “non-partisan, not bipartisan — it is values-based. That’s part of what gives the network its strength. Participants value having a place to talk about policies and what is going on in their cities.”

    How does MIP work? First, it is completely member-driven and supported financially by dues. To date, over 100 cities, ranging from mega-metropolitan areas such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, to such smaller cities like Burlington (Vt.), Eugene (Ore.), and Oak Park (Ill.) have taken part in MIP meetings. [Editor's note: The project lists five Washington cities as participants: Auburn, Redmond, Renton, Seattle, and Tacoma.] The gatherings occur over two days and are held twice a year. Attendance is limited to roughly 70 persons. The demand is growing so quickly that expansion plans are in the works.

    The meetings are organized around topical themes and the mayors have the opportunity to hear from key researchers and policy experts. Ample time is dedicated for the exchange of ideas through a formal forum and informal networking. While each attendee receives a briefing book, notes Rhodes-Conway, “we encourage the mayors to bring someone with them if they can, that way there is someone with additional memory that the mayor can interact with when they get home.”

    In addition to all the learning and networking, each mayor is encouraged to take three or four new policy ideas home for immediate implementation. MIP staff makes technical assistance available to help communities with the implementation process.

    How is it working? One strong supporter is Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City. “The Mayors Innovation Project gives me a rare opportunity,” he says, “to delve into timely topics in a free-flowing combination of best thinking and practices, and bring back home thinking about how I can apply them to Salt Lake City. Some of the best actions we’ve taken in Salt Lake City come directly from MIP interactions.”

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    Posted Mon, Apr 16, 8:46 p.m. Inappropriate

    As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense.
    - Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).

    You think these mayors might glean the top notch people in their communities that can certainly deal with democracy, governance, planning, community participation, innovation. Come on. We have these fine resources in the communities -- planning schools, civil society, non-profits. You think that community-directed focus groups and weekend think tanks could easily be convened, without yet another junket. How many places around the US and globe are there that can inform mayors how to understand urban-suburban-rural challenges? I can think of 30 right now to list here. I can also think of 100s of stakeholders and groups that would love to talk to Seattle's mayor and political van guard and give all sorts of leadership tips and governance ideas. Absolutely said, really, that we even allow the language to abuse mashed up terms. "hyper-partnership" ; "values and outcomes" (sounds like some of the lite-strategy stuff coming from graduate planning classes I took in college a few years ago) ; "improve the quality of life for citizens" (I thought that was already a given since said mayors ran and won their respective elections) ; "immediate implementation" (not many planners' plan see the light of day, plus, planners don't plan anything) ; "values based" (Oh, I am sure that does not include a heavy dose of social and environmental justice in the planning process).

    Funny how the real work of community design involves strong community partners. A treadmill is not what I think of when I shadowed mayors in several cities across this country. What kind of problem do mayors have in tapping into local and statewide resources -- i.e. citizens and smart folk gleaned from schools, non-profits and local businesses?

    It's tax day tomorrow, and Crosscut, again, fails to see the value of that topic as a story or series of stories. Oh well, more COWS.

    Get this tidbit --

    Across the United States more than 2,700 companies are collecting state income taxes from hundreds of thousands of workers – and are keeping the money with the states’ approval, says an eye-opening report published on Thursday.

    The report from Good Jobs First, a nonprofit taxpayer watchdog organization funded by Ford, Surdna and other major foundations, identifies 16 states that let companies divert some or all of the state income taxes deducted from workers’ paychecks. None of the states requires notifying the workers, whose withholdings are treated as taxes they paid.

    General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and AMC Theatres enjoy deals to keep state taxes deducted from their workers’ paychecks, the report shows. Foreign companies also enjoy such arrangements, including Electrolux, Nissan, Toyota and a host of Canadian, Japanese and European banks, Good Jobs First says.

    Why do state governments do this? Public records show that large companies often pay little or no state income tax in states where they have large operations, as this column has documented. Some companies get discounts on property, sales and other taxes. So how to provide even more subsidies without writing a check? Simple. Let corporations keep the state income taxes deducted from their workers’ paychecks for up to 25 years.


    David Cay Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. A 13-year veteran of The New York Times, David won the Pulitzer in 2001 for enterprise reporting that uncovered loopholes and inequities in the U.S. tax code. He has written several best-selling books, including Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill). His latest, The Fine Print: How Big Companies Abuse "Plain English" and Other Tricks to Rob You Blind, will be published in September.


    Mayors are in need of community development classes.

    The living arrangements American now think of as normal are bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically and spiritually.

    - James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere (1993)

    Because I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work. A land full of places that are not worth caring about will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending.

    - - James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere (1993)


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