July 29, 2013 - From the August, 2013 issue

Rick Cole, ASPA’s Dykstra Awardee, Calls for a Citizens Led Local Revolution

On June 20, several weeks prior to being appointed Deputy Mayor of Budget and Innovation by Los Angeles’ Mayor Eric Garcetti, Rick Cole, the former Mayor of Pasadena and former Ventura City Manager, was honored with the Clarence A Dykstra Award for Excellence in Government by the American Society for Public Administration. TPR is pleased to present the following remarks delivered by Cole at the luncheon ceremony, where he calls for a radical new approach to the fostering of sustainable and honest municipal government. 

Rick Cole

“If the science of public administration teaches us to manage well, but in cities like Santa Ana and Oakland what we’re managing well is the decline of once-great communities, then it’s not enough to manage well; we need to learn to lead.”

Rick Cole: Before public administration became an academic discipline, and before city managers became professional career office holders, there were crusaders like Clarence Dykstra, America’s first City Manager, for whom this award is named. It was because of their crusades against public corruption and urban misery that today we take it for granted that cities can be run honestly and effectively.

In a speech Dykstra gave 75 years ago on “the problems facing American cities,” he argued that America was on “the brink of a new public era.” Dykstra challenged what he called “the slow, costly, and ineffective” response of civic institutions to the urban challenges of his time. He called for new solutions, new partnerships, and new ways of thinking.

When Dykstra spoke in October of 1939, it was just a month after Hitler had invaded Poland. Dykstra warned of the dangers of what he called, “a world in flux.” He denounced the political machines that continued to cling to power in America’s largest cities, saying “we face disaster if they remain in control.” He called for an “aroused citizenship” to achieve what he called, “a local revolution.”

City managers don’t talk like that anymore, at least those who still have a job. Yet there is an old Chinese curse—may you live in interesting times. Around the world and here in California, public administration is again on the brink of a new era. Faced with new challenges, the response of our civic institutions is, again, slow, costly, and ineffective. It is time, again, for new solutions, new partnerships, and new ways of thinking. The world is again in flux. For the first time in human history, a majority of the world’s people live in cities. We are now an urban species, and cities are the dominant human habitat. Four billion people now live in cities, and that number grows by one million every week.

In China, where last year I participated in an environmental exchange with local officials, the government has embarked on a crash program to build housing for 250 million immigrants from the farmlands. And they aim to do that in 12 years. The scale is staggering. Imagine building new places to live for a population nearly the size of the entire United States of America—and not just places to live, but the entire civic and commercial infrastructure, including expanding the scope of city governments and their workforces.

In the cities that I visited last year—Xian, Beijing, Chunking—literally, in whatever direction you looked, there were high-rise buildings under construction. The audacity of this effort is as breathtaking as it is terrifying.

Chicago astonished the world when it grew from a population of 30,000 to almost a million in just 35 years. In 1978 the city of Shenzhen has a population of 30,000; in the last 35 years it has grown to a population of more than 10 million people.

All over the world people are on the move, and they’re not just relocating from rural villages to burgeoning megacities. They are in the streets in Moscow, Madrid, Tehran, Cairo, and they are demanding change and reform. And it’s happening today, as we speak, where thousands of people are protesting in Istanbul against the loss of a public park, and hundreds of thousands of people are protesting in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro about the inadequacies of public services.

From our distant vantage point, these street battles seem as ominous as they are inconclusive. Yet we should not forget that our freedoms were not hatched in a public policy seminar. They were forged in riots on the streets of colonial Boston, and they were won on the barricades of revolutionary Paris. The stirring of urban protests around the world today is our best hope for the global village that our children will live in.

Closer to home we face starkly different challenges. Although the population of California has more than tripled in my lifetime, growth is not our critical problem. To put it bluntly, our political and economic institutions have grown obsolete and out of touch. Instead of the reform that we need, we get less of the same.


We once looked to public institutions to promote prosperity, to end poverty, to put a man on the moon. Now we’ve lowered our expectations; we are relieved if our public institutions simply do no harm. Growing up in California, I remember where the specter of cities in decline was something that happened back east in the Rust Belt. Urban hopelessness was confined to places where it snowed, places like Detroit and Newark. The challenge for California was managing growth, not degeneration. Who could imagine that rapacious private interests would leave us with the same abandoned landscape of empty factories, blighted neighborhoods, and city councils full of small time crooks?

Weren’t city managers supposed to save us from criminals like Robert Rizzo? How is it that Robert Rizzo was a city manager?

In the land of the Brown Act and nonpartisan elections and the council/manager form of government, how could public officials brazenly get away with looting treasuries like South Gate, Vernon, and Bell?

Well, like China, and the Rust Belt, it’s comforting to pretend that those unfortunate communities are worlds away from well-managed enclaves like Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Pasadena. But there are 37 million people in California, and millions of them are trapped in cities that have been hijacked by crooks or where public managers are reduced to mediating between special interests that are warring over a diminishing public commonwealth.

If our shared interest in honest and effective government is not to become a privileged hobby like collecting art or listening to opera, then we have to recapture the crusading spirit of Clarence Dykstra. Cities like Bell and San Bernardino don’t need textbook solutions and they don’t need armchair analysis. We have to confront the gritty realities of the toughest urban challenges in California, cities like Stockton and Vallejo. If the science of public administration teaches us to manage well, but in cities like Santa Ana and Oakland what we’re managing well is the decline of once-great communities, then it’s not enough to manage well; we need to learn to lead.

I was born in the year that two climbers finally conquered Mount Everest. When I was a year old someone finally broke the four-minute mile, and when I was 15 the first man took the first step on the moon. In those years, the seemingly impossible has become routine. Yet like Clarence Dykstra, I believe there are new mountains to be climbed, new barriers to be broken, and bold new solutions that need to be offered, not on some distant frontier but in our cities, right around us.

Public administration has to engage in the great issues of our time. As John Kennedy said a long time ago, “I do not shrink from that challenge; I welcome it . . . We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy but because it is hard; because that goal will serve to organize the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one we are willing to accept and are unwilling to postpone; and one we intend to win.”

That’s the opportunity for public administration today, here and around the world. It will build great and sustainable cities, bringing honest and effective government where it is desperately needed. That goal can organize and measure the best of our energies and skills; it is a challenge we must be willing to accept; it is one we can’t afford to postpone; and it is one we have to win.

Let’s not rest on our laurels. 


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.