HOPE FOR THE FUTURE OF POLITICS
All politics is local,” said Speaker of the House Thomas Phillip (“Tip”) O’Neill, Jr. His 34-year success as a politician was tied to his ability to understand and influence the issues of his constituents. Rather than rely on lofty ideals about governance, the Speaker knew from experience that by addressing the concrete needs of those who had elected him, he’d remain in office. Some politicians and would-be politicians tend to lose sight of this rather simplistic observation about the government’s real function: to perform tasks for the benefit of the people. Fortunately for politicians in Miami-Dade County, there is a program, the Good Government Initiative that will reinforce for them why they were elected to office in the first place.
The Good Government Initiative, developed by former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, is a training program for newly elected officials in good governing practices. Its mission is to cultivate leaders of excellence in South Florida through the development and training of elected officials as well as those aspiring to run for office, and to engage the community in its governance through outreach and education.
“It is good training for what I see as an ‘entry-level’ job,” said Joe Corradino, Class II graduate and Councilmember for the Village
For Sorenson, President and CEO of the program (with sponsorship from the University of Miami), good government is the key to creating a community of lasting value for all residents. This basic belief, at a time when many Americans are a little less than sanguine about the ethics and abilities of those holding national office, is the rallying point for the program. Her inspiration was the Senior Executives in State and Local Government, a program presented by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for which she was selected to attend. The Harvard program emphasizes the need for elected officials and executives to become more effective public managers.
“The Harvard experience got me thinking about a program that would benefit those just coming into politics. Frankly, it is a course that I wish had been available to me when I was first elected,” said Sorenson.
Like many of her contemporaries, Katy Sorenson’s interest in governance arose from her participation in civil rights demonstrations in the mid-1960s. Her activism was one hallmark of her service as an elected official. In 1994, she began representing District 8 on the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners. Her 16-year tenure as commissioner is notable for a host of accomplishments; her advocacy for human rights, the environment and managed growth; and her integrity and commitment to her constituency.
The Good Government Initiative offers elected officials the “Leaders of Excellence” program that is in session from August to November, running about 64 hours in total. Admission is competitive and based on a prospective applicant’s integrity, the way in which he or she answers mandatory essay questions and how well he or she interviews with a panel of community leaders. The curriculum is extensive and includes ethics, budget and finance, media relations, economic development, constituent services, land use, and working with community organizations among other topics.
“I would say that one of the most valuable experiences in the program was the information we gained from the speakers,” said Corradino.
Participating speakers come from academia, government and the private sector. In keeping with Sorenson’s aim to steer clear of one party or one ideology, she was able to recruit both Senator Bob Graham (Democrat) and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican) to share their knowledge and experiences with the class.
“I learned a lot from the exchange of ideas that these speakers sparked among the people enrolled in my class,” said Josh Liebman, Class II graduate and Vice Mayor of the City of South Miami.
Speakers also included Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, council and school board members, mayors, and newly elected state representatives. One truly memorable experience for the class was hearing from former Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty. McCarty, who was fined and convicted of fraud, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. This was the first
time she had appeared in public since leaving prison.
The course, into which about 18 participants are accepted, features two overnight retreats and four days of classes and activities. The course kicked off with an opening dinner at the Little Haiti Cultural Center and closed with a dinner at the Kampong, Dr. David Fairchild’s Florida home and gardens in Coconut Grove.
One off campus visit was to the Chapman Homeless Assistance Center. Here the students learned how this private/public partnership reintegrated people who were once homeless via a successful job-training program (Chapman Partnership is the private-sector partner of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust).
Josh Liebman was elected South Miami’s Vice Mayor in February 2012; this is his first elected office. His interest in the program was to learn what he didn’t know about the complex world of politics. He wanted to learn from Sorenson chiefly because of what he calls her “stellar reputation” while in office. Liebman highly recommends the program to others in office and said that one of its major benefits was the ability to network with other public officials who come from all over South Florida.
“Florida’s Sunshine law makes it impossible for me to discuss issues facing our city with other South Miami Commissioners outside of a public meeting. Now, I have a group of people to call on who are essentially in the same boat, but we can mentor and advise each other without breaking the law,” said Liebman.
Joe Corradino is another civic-minded individual who appreciates the lessons learned at the Good Government Initiative. A City Planner by profession, Corradino operates on both sides of the governmental system. He is the Town Planner for the City of Homestead and he serves on Pinecrest’s Council. Recognizing the fragile nature of political office, Corradino said, “Running a government is a lot about trust; without it you have bad government.”
He encourages people to take advantage of Sorenson’s program. He believes that present and future graduates of the class will raise the quality level for governance across South Florida. And he is certain that the class will help recruit more good people into politics.
Corradino noted that there are over 30 cities in Miami-Dade County. This means that each time an unincorporated section of the county decides in favor of forming a local government, rather than relying strictly on the county, they are closer to their city or town and have much more immediate access for their needs and concerns. He sees the class as helping to build a cohesive team of knowledgeable people who can best serve those municipalities.
“For me, the classes were always interesting. I find that every day I use what I learned in the Good Government Initiative,” said Corradino.
Josh Liebman, too, extolled the benefits of the Initiative, “I never missed a class. As far as I am concerned, the program should
have Katy’s name on it.”
Sorenson reported that there are some programs similar to the Initiative in other parts of the country and that her model has the potential to be franchised. But in the final analysis, the program boils down to a few truisms: honesty and forthrightness are essential in a good leader, that knowing the rules will help you to correctly follow and apply them, and that in order for the community to understand your decisions, you must learn to effectively communicate your reasons for doing so.
And if you are considering a run for office, there is a workshop to help you decide if you have the right stuff to wade through the intricacies of land development codes, the patience for the cone of silence, and the steely nerves needed to properly assess a multi-million dollar budget. It is called “Thinking About Running?” which is now underway. But chances are there will be another opportunity to take advantage of this offering by the Good Government Initiative. To learn more about this and the Initiative, go to their website: http://goodgov.net/
And if you feel compelled to blame the “government” for what’s wrong with the United States, keep in mind that our system is indeed one that relies on the participation of the people for its success.
As Katy Sorenson said, “It’s important for citizens to understand the quality of their elected officials. If you don’t do for government,
then government gets done to you.”