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Sunday, April 4, 2010

One very good reason to support Chuck Bennett

Old City Hall siteThey got rid of city hall and gave us a parking lot -- what a perfect image for Salem. Image by Jason McHuff via Flickr

I don't know why anyone wants to be mayor of Salem much for the years to come -- it's like signing up to be Captain of the Willamette Queen -- you've got very little room to maneuver, you're constantly about a foot or two from running aground, you often face strong currents against you, you don't control your costs, and your only real hope is that institutions you don't control will decide, for whatever reason, to make your success happen.

But one thing I know is that, when times are tough, the better the communicator, the better the result. And, right now, official Salem is a terrible communicator. The city would do better with a team of teens from each high school competing to do public information than it has now.

Take the current snoozefest letter, dated March 30, 2010, and attractively headlined in that oh-so-alluring military style SUBJECT: Flood Hazards in the City of Salem. It goes on, for page after crashingly boring page, without ever quite managing to explain why any reader would get past the first paragraph. It should be a case study in "How not to waste public money in public information products." The "overview" doesn't tell you what's in the letter or why you might want to spend precious minutes of your life trying to decipher what it's saying. Rather, the overview is like the "overview" sections of the textbooks you didn't read when you were a kid -- "The City of Salem features the Willamette River and smaller tributaries ZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz before finishing with the sizzling news that something called the "Pineapple Express" plus development -- which Salem often approves at a break neck pace -- equals flood risk.

Not a single picture in the whole letter. Not a damn one.

Chuck Bennett was a newspaper guy. And now he's a lobbyist. And some people criticize him for it, but God love a duck, if there's anything Salem needs right now it's someone who actually thinks about how to deliver a message in a way that makes people listen. Because the hard fact is that we. are. in. trouble. Jackson County closing government level trouble. When Oregon faces annual budget deficits -- as we fly over Governor Ted's cliff that he mentioned -- Salem doesn't just get its share of the pounding as a city, we also get a double shot of pain because all economies aimed at government at any level hit us in Salem extra hard.

Anna Peterson appears to be running a campaign to win office as a jobs builder, following in the footsteps of Janet Taylor, following in the footsteps of all the other politicians who campaign on the platform of "getting government out of the way of business so it can ________" (create jobs, cure cancer and psoriasis, clean up the environment, etc.). Got news for you -- being mayor IS a government job, even if we're so cheap that we don't pay for it. And the mayor won't be creating any jobs, no matter who it is, because the revenue won't be there. The only people who can create jobs are those who find a way to make money off making a job, and there's very little that Salem does to discourage that now, if you don't count being a bipolar town with a shrinking middle class as a discouragement to jobs.

One reason we can hope that Chuck wins the booby prize is that, if Peterson actually has any ideas for creating jobs, then she'd be wasted in the mayor's seat. The more likely reason is that all the jobs talk is just code for the SEDCOR and Chamber of Commerce types "Look, I'm not Mike Swaim, I'll do whatever you want and never, never, never suggest that businesses have to help pay the freight around here." But, either way, the bottom line is that neither Bennett nor Peterson are going to have much more control on jobs than does one of the Honorary Captains on the Willamette Queen (the kids who get to spin the wheel around while Capt. C. operates the thrusters that determine where the thing actually goes).

Me, I'd settle for having a good communicator in the mayor's office. And that's Chuck Bennett.
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