November 1, 2010 - From the October, 2010 issue

Don Waldie, Bard of Lakewood, Retires After 30-Plus Years of Public Service

Nearly a year after announcing his retirement, Don Waldie finally retired from 30+ years of public service to the city of Lakewood. A thoughtful contributor to local media outlets, Don Waldie engaged and invested in Southern California. To detail the current interaction between local government and residents, especially with the Bell scandal and shifting power dynamics in L.A., TPR is pleased to present the following interview with a public servant whose unique talents will be missed.

Don Waldie

You recently retired after over 33 years of service to the city of Lakewood, California. Share with our readers the arc of your career and the perspective it has afforded you.

I was hired by the city of Lakewood in September, 1977, shortly after a cycle of divisive politics had shaken up city government-a couple of ugly elections that led to a recall. It was clear to city council members and Lakewood's senior management in early 1977 that something was broken about the way the city presented itself to the Lakewood community. Residents felt remote from city government. They were disaffected. They didn't know where their city was going or why.

My former boss, retired Assistant City Manager Mike Stover was hired a few months before I was in 1977. As the city's public information team, we had a mandate from the city council and City Manager Howard Chambers to mend a broken relationship and to rebuild a sense of community using the tools we had at hand-dealing with the news media, preparing a city newsletter, and creating events through which residents might come to learn more about local government. My career in Lakewood began with a city that had a broken relationship with its residents. My purpose over almost 33 years was to mend that relationship and, perhaps, give it the strength to continue into the future.

"Sense of place" is a recurring theme in your writing: "Loyalty is a greater value, dependent on a ‘sense of place' but requiring a deeper understanding-what Alfred Kazin memorably called ‘an insistence to know.'" You live in the suburbs, as you describe Lakewood. Is there still "a sense of place" and "an insistence to know" there?

I am afraid that some of the mechanisms that have, in the past, sustained a sense of place and given residents enough knowledge to earn their loyalty have grown weak or disappeared entirely. The most obvious missing piece is the weekly newspaper that rounded up every bit of school and sports news, as well as the political news. Those papers are gone. The big daily papers-the Press Telegram, Daily News, L.A. Times, the Whittier Daily News-that once carried the burden of investigating local institutions have mostly walked away from that responsibility. As a consequence, if a city is not actively engaged in a daily process of communicating with its residents, that city runs the risk of having community members who have no reason to be loyal to their city. They will have become mere passive consumers of city services. They are no longer active citizens.

N.Y. Times columnist Frank Rick wrote this month: "Facebook Politicians Are Not Your Friends." He said, "Nowhere, perhaps, is the gap between the romance and the reality of the Internet more evident than in our politics. In the idealized narrative of digital democracy, greater connectivity has bequeathed more governmental transparency, more grass-roots participation and even a more efficient rendering of political justice." That's the romantic view of the internet. What your view upon retirement from city service?

Cities are not particularly good at making use of all the possible modes of communication they already have. Lakewood has been a spectacular success, but even we are not perfect users of all modes of communication. We are very good at what we do, but we are not so good at everything that we could do. Cities still haven't fully learned how to use digital media, for example. In Lakewood, we are beginning to understand how to use these rapidly evolving media platforms. Early on, we invested in a significant web presence and a weekly mass e-magazine that we mail to about 14,000 subscribers. We have dipped our toe into the newest forms of social media. We're a little uncertain as to what they mean and how they work.

We are also concerned about having a voice that is coherent. One of the difficulties with a multitude of platforms is that the message can become incoherent.

Some time ago USC's Bedrosian Center hosted a symposium titled: "Governance in the Age of" Do local governments face exceptional challenges today given a media environment that effectively mashes-up politics with entertainment?

We face enormous difficulties as the gap grows between the media habits of younger voters and the media capacities of the city officials who represent them. Social media imply a degree of intimacy that simply isn't there. In actuality, it often has the false intimacy of strangers talking on a bus. I'm not convinced that social media creates the relationships that generate true citizenship. At this stage, social media invites little of the depth that leads to the give-and-take of true politics. It's disturbing that what I read and see is so shallow. The lack of young voter interest in the current mid-term election, despite the success of new media in building support for President Obama in 2008, suggests that digital politics haven't fully arrived.

About city administration you wrote, "Laid bare, that's the sum of my years as a local government bureaucrat-a moral imagination, one that is wide enough to encircle this specific place and, just perhaps, to encompass that part of the American experience which is life in a working-class suburb." Do you leave behind colleagues that have a like sense of moral imagination?

I trust that I have. I was fortunate to participate in the selection of my successor as Lakewood's Public Information Officer. We are a very small shop. There are very few of us here who have a role in communication with residents, with telling the city story. I have been enormously fortunate-blessed is not too strong a word-to work with men and women who share the view that there is value in the working class suburban life that Lakewood residents lead. My colleagues at City Hall have devoted their careers to making life in Lakewood meet the expectations of these residents. Broadly speaking, my former colleagues share a moral imagination that is both realistic-Lakewood is not paradise- and aspirational: that Lakewood can satisfy the hopes and allay the fears of the folks who live here. I really believe that.

The profession of public administrators took a blow at the local, state, and national level when a scandal in one of your neighboring cities, Bell, broke. How did you feel and react to the news reports?

Realistically, we all know that there are small cities on the "great flat" of the Los Angeles plain that have serious ethical problems. Their stories are well known; they trouble those of us in the profession of city management. Bell has gone wrong to a heartbreaking degree. Bell turns out to be such a cesspool of failed ethics and deranged choices that it will permanently change how city managers think about their job and how residents think about how their elected and appointed officials. Even in Lakewood, we have started asking ourselves-second-guessing ourselves-if we do this how will our residents perceive it in light of Bell? How will other communities around us perceive it? How will the news media perceive it? Those are questions we didn't typically ask in the past because we thought we had built a bond with our residents. Now we don't know. We don't know if they are seeing us through the lens of Bell. Bell has thrown into confusion again the relationship we thought we had with our residents.

Is one lesson of the Bell scandal that there is a growing problem re citizen connectivity and trust with their local governments, and that in great measure this is caused by the absence of daily or weekly papers?

It is a thin lifeline to say that we would all be better off if there was a robust and active news media at every layer, from neighborhood to region. That's a thin lifeline, but that's the only one I have to offer. Trust has eroded in many communities in recent years. Not in all communities, but in communities where poisonous politics, majority immigrant populations, low voter turnout, and low public attention to city government conspire, you get a place like Bell.


If you were retained as a consultant by Bell or adjoining cities to share your experiences in Lakewood and to offer advice on what to do, how would you begin your assignment?

That would be difficult. How do you transform the thinking of a city council that may have had no experience with active, direct communication with residents? In Lakewood 33 years ago, city council members collectively chose to tell a coherent story about Lakewood and what it was doing. If you have five council members thinking that way, a public information officer like me has a clear mission. But if local politics is only about each individual councilperson's career-his or her piece of the political pie-then a public information officer really can't do much for you. There has to be that political coherence before there can be communications coherence and relationship building.

City management as a profession has taken some hits recently-not only because of the city of Bell scandal, but also in larger cities like San Diego, which eliminated their city manager and voted to have a direct election of a more powerful mayor. Share your views, just weeks before the November election, on the proper role of local government professional managers.

This is an area of extreme contrasts. You have communities where residents understand that local government is overseen by a city council, but the day-to-day operations of government, the actual delivery of services, is done by professional staff. Informed residents in those cities make choices about their political leaders and have a bond with the professional staff. That is in an ideal situation. That is what Lakewood aspires to. There are other cities where the professional management is remote from residents and city council members are essentially feral.

In the 1970s, Lakewood decided to devote an enormous amount of effort to customer service. We thought that customer service was one of the best ways of rebuilding relationships with residents. Communication was one way, but exemplary customer service was another.

We centralized our customer service function with a computer-based system. All complaints came to a highly trained team of customer service representatives at City Hall. They dog resident complaints throughout the system. A lot of cities don't do that-complaints go from department to department, handled by secretary after secretary. Senior managers don't know what quality of service is being provided except when angry residents arrive at City Hall complaining. Customer service and communication are two of the three "legs" needed to rebuild relationships between residents and city government. In Lakewood we did both of those simultaneously.

The third "leg" was to give residents opportunities to encounter their city. We developed a series of events in settings that allowed residents to get to know us better and to see how local government functioned and how their involvement with local government was being rewarded. That was the third "leg"-creating intimacy with local government.

You contribute to the L.A. Times and other media about L.A. Can a 475-square-mile city of 4 million peopleachieve similar service levels?

Intimacy with civic life can be done on a neighborhood basis. But in a city the size of Los Angeles and with its history, it would be very difficult. I tend to be an advocate-not in the Tea Party fashion-of small government, small in the sense that city government is hard to understand when its span covers as huge an electorate as the city of Los Angeles. It can be done on a council district basis, but then big city government devolves into fiefdoms of city council members. I wouldn't want to be the public information officer for the city of Los Angeles. I wouldn't know where to begin.

You have long been a keen observer and commentator of metropolitan Los Angeles. Presently, the mayor is using terms like "czar" for senior staff. How has the delicate relationship between electeds, governments, and residents evolved and dissolved in L.A.?

The story of Los Angeles, going back to the beginning of the 20th century, reflects the choice of economic and political elites to deliberately diminish political life and cede authority to technicians. Government-by-technocracy ended up running the city of Los Angeles. The technocrats delivered the benefits of living here-electricity, water, police, parks, and beaches. They delivered the goods, but the technocrats couldn't build a sense of citizenship among the residents of the city. Angelenos became ever more passive consumers of the good things that the technicians delivered.

In the meantime, city politics became very corrupt, and Los Angeles went through repeated cycles of reform and corruption until the 1950s. Even with city charter reform in the late 1990s, Los Angeles still hasn't evolved structures of local government that encourage consumers to become citizens. Some of the fixes-neighborhood councils, area planning commissions, and the change in power relationships between the City Council and the Mayor's Office-haven't shown their worth yet or have been stymied by the politics of the past or weren't good ideas to begin with.

As I have said more than once in writing about L.A., change is underway. The city is in the midst of a half-finished revolution-maybe only a third finished. More has to happen to transform relationships. I wish I knew exactly what those things are. I thought they were area planning commissions. I thought they were neighborhood councils. I thought bringing politics and the experience of governance closer to residents was an answer. They haven't worked yet. I worry that they may not work at all.

What will occupy your time now? Will you continue to comment on the landscape on cities and life in those cities in the metropolitan Los Angeles area?

Absolutely. I still blog for them at KCET Voices, and they generously allow me to range over the subjects that interest me. I will, from time to time, pitch an op-ed piece to L.A. Times. I get to talk to students often because my books are frequently used as texts in urban planning and history courses-so I have something of a soap box from which to reach a new generation. And I have more books that I need to write.


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