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Panelists explore future of governance under new administration.

"So where do we go from here?"

Though it was framed dozens of different ways, that seemed to be the question that bounced from floor questions to stage presentations throughout last week's National League of Cities' (NLC) Congress of Cities held in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Nowhere was that question more clearly framed at the annual event than in the Governance and Management plenary session held Monday afternoon. Sparked by the guidance of moderator Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, panelists worked through many of the questions that nettle political discussions in America today.

They are the kinds of questions for which easy answers are always available and for which no answer offers much certainty. Though the questions change, it is the kind of questioning that always accompanies a time bent to the expectations of change. It is the kind of questioning that blurs the line between those who have hope for their government and those who attempt to fulfill those hopes.

Joining Ornstein as panelists were Art Hamilton, minority leader of the Arizona House and president-elect of the National Conference of State Legislators, Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, Ruth W. Messinger, Manhattan borough president, Mayor Greg Lashutka of Columbus, Ohio and Mayor Jimmy Burke of Deer Park, Tex., chair of the NLC Small Cities Council.

Ornstein, in his opening remarks, rendered those questions part of the "Post Cold War Blues." We are in a period, he said, in which we have moved from decades of focusing our budget and our energies on the threat of Communism to a period where we are grasping for new purposes and goals.

Instead of "dancing in the streets" over the fall of Communism, we find ourselves miserable and frustrated by the uncertainty of a new age, Ornstein said. We find ourselves, public officials and private citizens alike, tripping over the question of "Where do we go from here?"

But while we as a nation seem very willing to ask that question, there is no clear indication of what our answer to that question is, according to Ornstein. We vote for change, but not in as dramatic a fashion as many thought we would. We are willing to limit the terms of elected officials, as we did in 14 states this past election, but we are not as willing to make the wholesale changes in Congress that many expected in this last election.

Instead we expressed our antipathy by sending to Washington a record number of members of Congress with less than 55% of the vote and by allowing a third presidential candidate to break the mold and see this popular support increase in the final week of a campaign, according to Ornstein.

"That public attitude of antipathy is there, even if we are not quite yet willing to express it by throwing everybody out," Ornstein told the crowd of several hundred municipal delegates.

It is a challenge in which ordinary people believe firmly that those in the elites of politics, business, the media and other institutions have isolated themselves in their own "cushy" worlds to play by their own rules at the expense of the rest of us, Ornstein said.

That attitude and those frustrations are, according to Ornstein, the challenges that face those who attempt to lead.

That challenge is difficult partially in that symbols of that frustration, such as term limits often come out as "mixed signals," in the eyes of NCSL's Art Hamilton. Though those efforts have been widely supported, they say "no to the system," while at the same moment voters are most often saying "yes" to their own incumbent, at least for another few terms, Hamilton said.

While there was no shortage of opinion on the rightness of wrongness of the term limit movement among the elected officials on the panel and in the audience, there was also the sense that the issue would not dissipate if elected officials don't get to the root of the issue.

"While we can criticize this movement, we have to respect this manifestation of public frustration and, if we don't in some way, term limits will continue as a steamroller and continue to build," Beckwith told the audience.

"This may be an issue in which the horse is out of the barn," Mayor Lashutka told the delegates. "People are voting for the issue overwhelmingly.

Lashutka said term limits would continue to grow unless elected officials at all levels of government can convince the nation that the major issues of the day are being effectively tackled.

Hamilton and Lashutka both pointed to recent meetings of state and local government public interest groups as hopeful signs that a renewed attention to making government work both at the state and local level is occurring. They pointed to that "coalition building" as a base for also improving the working relationship between those governments and the federal government.

Messinger also pointed to the emerging state and local coalition as an effort that could help make government and the local/state/federal partnership work again, but only if the coalition could work through problems without a "crisis" mentality.

"Hard work takes time," she said and that, despite public pressure to the contrary, officials will have to be brave enough to tell voters that good solutions do not come overnight.

Lashutka also warned that real change in the relationship of the nation's governments and their collective ability to meet people's expectations by solving problems will not be without hard decisions. He said government will not regain the American people's respect through simple political consensus.

"Consensus can be mediocrity," he said. "A shared vision is what is needed and within that we must convince people that we will work out the nation's major problems."
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Title Annotation:National League of Cities
Author:Mahoney, John K.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Dec 7, 1992
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