John Buechner, former Boulder mayor, on how to make local government work
John Buechner, former mayor of Boulder and former head of the University of Colorado, thinks he has some solutions to the challenges of local government -- mainly that elected officials don't actually get that much done and citizens don't really care.
He outlines his prescription for low-level politicians in his book, Who's Running This Town Anyway? New Dimensions of Local Government Leadership, a forty-page text that Buechner hopes will be a useful guide for both those serving on city councils and citizens trying to decide where to cast their votes.
The $6 E-book or $9.95 paperback -- available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com -- was inspired by the 78-year-old Buechner's forty-plus years in politics and higher education. In addition to serving as both a city councilman and mayor in Boulder, Buechner is also a one-time president of the University of Colorado. He's written textbooks about government and public service, but says that this is a different kind of book.
His work as a consultant for city councils across the country also played a big role in the content of his book, where he argues that governments need to change their culture and leadership styles and throw out the status quo in decision-making. Here are excerpts from our recent Q&A with Buechner:
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Westword: What motivated you to write this book? Where did the idea come from?
John Buechner: I have been on two city councils, and I have been a mayor and worked with 45 different cities around the country. I thought, to be very honest with you, that there would be a need for council people or potential candidates to decide something besides how a building comes along, more like looking at a bigger picture, if you will.... I didn't want to write memoirs or textbooks -- I've done that. I thought maybe council people or candidates would like this.... I've worked in councils from Maine to California, and I've seen just about every type. Only the names and faces change.
What makes your perspective on this issue unique?
If there is a unique value, it would be taking what has been rationally written about local government and moving it to an almost philosophical level where there's some kind of dialogue about where we are going [in terms of] the types of people being elected. Are they going to be effective decision makers?.... The first inclination [when government isn't working] seems to be to change structure. We've run out of structural changes. We've run out of structural ideas. You can tweak it.... Those ideas aren't bad ideas in themselves, but they aren't addressing the big problems that cities are facing. That's going to demand different kinds of leadership. When you get right down to it...the less people are disadvantaged, the more neutral they are about their local government.... If the sewer is backed up, then it's 'Who's running this town?'
Why do you think structural changes don't work? Well, some of them work, but I think what happens when things go sour, they think, "Well, first we'll just change the structure -- charter amendments, ordinances...". They'll do that first.... We've pretty well run out of structural ideas or innovations.... I've been thinking about this my whole career: Why is it that we spend so much time talking about the process and not talking about the output?... We've become process-oriented and focus on whether or not we have followed not just the law, but our own internal rules. I've had councils that I've worked with that have spent hours and hours on minutia that are process-oriented rather than talking about whether this fits into the common good. Does this fit into the future of where this town is going? ... You become very insulated to your own corporate limits.
Can you describe the leadership style that you think is most effective? I've created my own kind of taxonomy of the types of people that get elected.... You have three types of people. You have people who are negativists who run against something. They are very popular.... The negativist generally tends to exert his or her leadership by continuing to be negative.... The positivist is the other extreme...based on some theme that underlies [a campaign]...maybe some ideology...or way of approaching problems -- the environment, civil liberties, usually something good. The problem is if that person is locked into it, he or she is basically going to be that way on any issue. The third person I have is what I call the hybrid -- the renaissance leader who is beginning to take issues as they appear and [doesn't] get locked into a thematic ideological block.... They [make decisions] based on their own research and getting feedback. That requires time and perspective.... The hybrids are the most difficult to get elected. They are not viewed as being consistent.... [But they look at] the bigger picture.
How much of your own personal experiences in politics inform the advice you lay out in this book? By working directly with councils across the country, you begin to see patterns.... I could almost tell you who the negativist is, who the positivist is and who the hybrid is with about half an hour of conversation. It's not that I'm insightful, I've just been around it a long time.... I am intrigued by the notion that people [citizens] are basically neutral. When they are disadvantaged, they ask who is running this town, but if it were up to them, they wouldn't know who their city council is.
How would some of the recommendations you make in the book apply to some of the challenges you faced when you were in office? There have been a couple of decisions...basically on growth control...where it turns out I wasn't thinking of the bigger picture. I was thinking of my own personal view, what I wanted as an individual resident of the city.
After writing this, do you want to run for office and try again? Well, I always sort of think about it.... I like to keep that option open. It's part of the ego.
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