My London Free Press article of today – An open letter to City Manager Art Zuidema on his first week on the job.
First of all, Mr. Zuidema, a sincere welcome to London. I’m just one of thousands of local and regional citizens who are proud of our community but understand that you’ve come at a pivotal time.
With your arrival as the new city manager, though, things are a bit different from when your predecessors took up their jobs. We were more observers then, somewhat worried over the decline of the manufacturing base in the city and turmoil at city hall. Former manager, Jeff Fielding, showed a deft hand at bringing order out of some of the chaos and earned a lot of respect. Now many of us are more engaged, attempting to work with officials to get through these difficult days.
You’ve arrived in a different community than the one to which Mr. Fielding came. The recent global economic turbulence has left its effect here and poverty now seems to be entrenched in ways it never was previously. As a result, unemployment and underemployment are like a cancer eating away at our civic life. We used to take a more complex series of actions to deal with such challenges, but of late hardened positions have given us little room for flexibility.
Of course we want growth and sustainability, but it’s not as though we haven’t been through recessions before and learned from those experiences. Those lessons helped us to develop a diverse approach across a wide range of challenges. There is a sense that many of our historic gains might be at risk, so perhaps you could help bring some assurance that the investments of past city councils and citizens will continue to stabilize our collective life now, as we face our present challenges.
This “growth at all costs” pressure has meant that much of the vision for other needed aspects of our community life – the environment, citizen engagement, planning intensification, acknowledgement of the increasing mental health challenges facing most communities, homelessness, proper investment in evidence-based policy, the need for a robust downtown core, and the desire for an active arts community – seem to have lost some of their momentum. It would be of great help to us if you could remind Council and staff that a successful future will depend on the proper correlation of all these aspects.
Like other communities, our confidence in politics has begun to erode with all levels of government – we are feeling increasingly alone. There is a growing worry that the ideological divisions of our Council have come at a most inopportune time, given our present economic struggle. Jeff Fielding pulled a rabbit out of a hat during his tenure, helping politicians to put their differences aside on the basis of evidence and the will of citizens developed through engagement measures. It is our sincere hope that the infighting of Council can be transcended by their willingness to work with you and your staff to stabilize gains made in the past and discover an enhanced quality of life and economic stability in the future.
The next generation of young civic leaders should be one of your main resources as you seek to assess London’s future – they feel shut out. They are pragmatic, non-ideological, entrepreneur-oriented, and have a strong social media presence. I hope you spend some time with them.
Some have disparaged a few Council members for not caring for their community. This mischaracterizes the situation. Councillors believe in this city and fight for its success, but they are experiencing difficulty in harmonizing their own opinions with those of others. You could bring some much-needed professionalism to that scenario, helping them to move forward with a plan much more inspiring and cooperative than what is there at present. ReThink London could help you with that.
We need your skills right now. As staff has taken a back seat to Council’s divided vision, many of us worry that our future might be lost in our pursuit of a misguided present. You can harmonize these approaches, and I believe you will. This is a great community that’s questioning itself at the moment. Help us to find ourselves in all this confusion and you will have accomplished a terrific work.