Harrisburg Strong Plan: Point to Ponder
By my estimate, it was seventeen hours.
That’s how long I spent in City Council Chambers over five days in one week hearing details of the so-called Harrisburg Strong Plan.
It’s not the first time I’ve spent that kind of time there. I did that back in 2010 for the Act 47 application. I did that during budget hearings, each year for three years. I did that for the first two debt recovery plans put forth.
The point is I’ve spent a lot of time in Harrisburg City Council Chambers watching a lot of the People’s business going on.
I see people coming in and out. I see who comes consistently, who comes periodically, and who comes when there’s something to see.
There are some people who come only for the issues on hand. They come far and few betweeen. They come when they believe there’s something important to say, and they step up to the mic to do just that typically prepared with statements to do so.
Then there are people who come up to the mic often. Some say similar things each time, no matter what the issues on the agenda are. Those things aren’t necessarily irrelevant, and often they remind those of us who are listening what matters the most to a community, to a society.
Other times, there is nonsense said. Nonsense only judged because the speakers clearly aren’t paying attention. They are talking at the public mic about public matters but they aren’t sufficiently informed. They say things that aren’t accurate, aren’t true, or aren’t fair.
So it goes. That’s what happens at the public mic.
The problem, of course, with this is that inaccuracies get spread beyond the scope of City Council Chambers.
And that happens.
Over the past four years, that frequently has happened. What’s the significance of the past four years? It’s when everything hit the fan. It’s when we knew. We the People. It’s when we knew something was severely awry.
To be fair, there were many people saying something was awry for a very long time. There were groups of people, in fact. However, previously they had been shut down. Little regarded. Massively unknown.
In 2010, though, things had changed.
Not only wasn’t there an iron clad Reed Administration anymore in power, but there was a whole, brave new world. People could tweet, post, and record their individual perspectives in a whole new way. No longer was it a matter of this person or that person having a voice. Rather, it was everyone had a voice.
Still, to have a voice of plausibility amongst those observing, one had to pay attention and have the means to spread the word. On top of that, the person chanting had to be a person there, understanding the conundrums at play, feeling the chaos and confusion.
Also at least, that person had to be a trustworthy source.
At least this is the ideal.
In actual fact, there hadn’t been too many trustworthy sources for a long time.
For a long time, there was an issue with the local media—the expected watchdogs of the People—not getting it, not seeing it, not telling it as it was. It was another Reedism that the Thompson Administration couldn’t ever replicate, fortunately.
In 2010, there were more people watching, hearing, and asking key questions.
In 2010, Mayor Linda Thompson was in office. In 2010, the Harrisburg Authority Board was dismantled. In 2010, City Council and the Mayor engaged in a bitter battle. In 2010, the Mayor promised a forbearance agreement with creditors. In 2010, she failed to do this. In 2010, City Council shut down Scott Balice as financial advisor as well as a threat of the monetization of the parking assets and the mayor’s lack of direction.
That might be premature—the use of the term “the city’s current debt solution.”
In response to City Council’s victories, Mayor Thompson unilaterally applied for the Act 47 program, a state program for distressed municipalities.
Thompson now is using her decision to apply for Act 47 as a herald of her leadership.
However, that fact is nothing other than ironic. Yes, Linda Thompson put the city into the state’s hands, but only because she couldn’t handle the job before her. While multiple residents have fought and argued against the state’s jurisdiction, let’s not forget Thompson single handedly and triumphantly delivered the city’s residents there.
That being said, since she was the mayor, it was indeed the best thing for the city to be in the state’s Act 47 program.
Thompson couldn’t handle the city’s fiscal problems otherwise.
Why should she have been able to, though?
There was no indication before her assent to the mayoral throne that she was able to handle the tasks at hand. She clearly wasn’t the most effective person for the enormous job in front of her and several people who campaigned against her said as much.
With Linda Thompson’s ascension to the mayoral seat came a transparency provided by incompetence. She just didn’t have the capability to make it seem as if everything was running as normal. It’s important to note, while 2010 may have been the year that the greater public actually started to see the capital city’s problems, they had been going on long before.
Many people said this before Linda Thompson was elected. That the problems were too big for her.
The truth is, the problems were too big for anyone.
The problems—that is, Harrisburg’s debt crisis—were absolutely too big for any one person to handle. That’s why it required such a high-powered team furnished by the state because Harrisburg wouldn’t have been able to afford it or pull it off otherwise.
There are jokes and claims that get thrown about that if Reed were still in office, we’d never know about all of the mess he created. “He’d have never let it get this far.”
Well, that’s quite a legacy, if one believes it.
Just like if one believes that it was actually Linda Thompson who orchestrated the city’s current debt solution.
That might be premature—the use of the term “the city’s current debt solution.”
However, just like was discussed over and over again during my seventeen hours in Harrisburg City Council Chambers in the past week, this plan is the only chance we got.
I do believe that.
I realize the above statement is difficult and disappointing for some of my fellow residents to hear.
Years ago I made myself a name by calling out recovery plans and elected officials who did not do well by We the People.
My support of the “Harrisburg Strong Plan” may cause the retort of turncoat, tired, and/or coerced.
Perhaps all of those accusations are true. Perhaps, though, I have been paying attention for a long time. More than most. In a firsthand way.
I have read. I have discussed. I have questioned. I have studied. I have compared and contrasted. I have written. I have disclosed a great deal on these topics. When other observers weren’t writing or posting or broadcasting, I was.
And fortunately, I wasn’t alone as witness.
There are a handful of citizens who have gone to, read, and presented as much as we could.
That being said, the solution is not pretty.
There are so many people who have flatlined each of the recovery plans, and for the first two versions of the plan, I agreed.
This one—this admittedly lame-named “Harrisburg Strong Plan” —is the one that offers the most to the City of Harrisburg.
I hear disagreement in the air. Yet never do I hear an alternative to the deliberately constructed blueprint put before us. Over and over again as I hear various skilled and studied persons say, “this is the best thing the city can get considering its situation,” I cannot help to think that I will only be swayed by the opposition if they can come up with something else I can see, touch, contemplate, measure, survey, and hold accountable.
The sad reality is this—people barely showed up or paid attention when they should have. Term after term, Reed had a sort of carte blanche to do what he wanted.
That is not something we want to talk about too much. We point out that there is a population being disadvantaged but we don’t want to talk about how that occurred.
We point out that it is unfair but we don’t want to point out how few people gathered to demand fairness.
Until now. Until the vote counts. Until the decision is to be made. That’s when the claims, accusations, and outbursts are recorded on the public record.
Yes, there is an unfair part of it all. Dauphin County and the city residents don’t share the pain more equitably when it comes to trash tipping fees.
That’s pretty much the worst part of the plan and the most egregious. That debt-creation obligation should have been equalized in the same way the votes to initiate the crisis were equalized, i.e. every county commissioner, city councilor, and the Harrisburg mayor votes equaled the same in this regard.
It is truly a shame that didn’t happen but there may be ways to offset that in the future as the city gains better footing. If we can make this city sound, these current solutions can be legitimately reconsidered and readjusted.
Here’s the thing we each have to remember in an empowering way, so much of the Harrisburg Strong Plan is based on hypotheticals, yes, but one of the most significant hypotheticals is the People.
There are claims that this plan takes away the people’s democracy.
The greatest democracy the people of Harrisburg can exercise is paying attention to what’s going on and demanding accountability.
We get to do this in the coming years. The plan’s success is based on that.
Paying attention has been missing from the equation for far too long. The implied contingency of this Harrisburg recovery plan is that factor. As simple as it sounds, much of that plan’s success is based on how much the public pays attention and responds to what’s happening. And demands accountability.
Who will we be, Harrisburg? Who will we be? Who we were before or something different?
Unless an alternative is thrown on the table, this plan seems to be the best chance we got of being that something different.
Illustrations by Ammon Perry: Doodletillomega