Saturday, July 24, 2010

New Normal

I've been having trouble sleeping the last few weeks, so I've been listening to podcasts at bedtime. One that really caught my ear is Radiolab, a show produced by WNYC; its focus is largely scientific, and I like science a lot, but what's hooked me on the show is that the hosts, Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, infuse cerebral scientific concepts with lots of messy, uncomfortable, and tender humanity.

One show centered around the ideas of change and finding a new normal. One segment was about a group of baboons who got into some tainted meat, and many of the dominant, aggressive males died. The females and the more cooperative males were left running things, and over the course of the next baboon generations, primatologists noted that the group was by far the most peaceful baboon group they'd studied. There's some debate as to how this group became less prone to fighting: was the changed learned, or was it innate since the aggressive males were out of the gene pool? Can baboons even change? Can people change? Maybe.

Another story in the show talked about a small conservative town in Oregon called Silverton, and what happened there when one of their own, Stu Rasmussen, ran for mayor. Rasmussen is a business owner, a metalworker, woodworker, and electrician, and over the years, he gradually took on the appearance of a woman (his girlfriend, by the way, says a man with boobs is kinda cool). Sure, his fellow townsfolk thought he was odd, and they didn't really like what he was doing with his body, but they liked it even less when a group of conservative Christians came to visit. Stu won the election, making him the nation's first transgendered mayor.

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The show has really stuck with me, because in both of the segments, the groups are small, and they've found themselves in challenging situations. Trenton, I think, sits on the edge of some big change, and we may just fall off the cliff. But maybe with some extraordinary thinking, we can find ourselves in a new, better, normal. I'm not terribly interested in criticizing Mayor Mack yet since he's only been on the job for a few weeks, and all of the problems facing Trenton were here before he took office. But it bothers me to read that he is taking home the same salary as former mayor Doug Palmer; and hasn't made any cuts to the take-home fleet of vehicles, and, like Palmer, has drivers and security guards. It makes me sick to think that Mack's talking about laying off over 100 police officers in light of the excesses right in front of his nose. Public safety must not be compromised.

In the last couple of weeks, Mack has also talked about closing the libraries and cutting hours at the pools, and then later, reversed his decisions. He is new to the job, and it's easy to blame everything on Palmer, since so many of our fiscal problems were exacerbated, if not caused by, Palmer. But it's so very rare to hear anything resembling an apology from an elected official, that we should give Mack a bit of credit. He needs to think for himself, and he needs to make some serious sacrifices, and soon.

I hope that our new administration is looking at every option to save this city. Are they looking around to see how others are coping with this lousy economy? Hamilton doesn't give take-home cars out willy-nilly anymore. That's a good idea, and one we need to see here. Newark is implementing a 4-day work week for non-uniformed employees. It's not an idea to get excited about, but it's better than layoffs, and my god, it's certainly better than laying off cops.

Elsewhere, two libraries in Baltimore now allow patrons to order groceries from a local supermarket and pick them up the next day at the library, something that could work in Trenton, and it may help our libraries to stay afloat. According to governing.com the program is funded by a $60,000 stimulus grant. Baltimore hopes to add a third location.

In New York City, the Business Outreach Center network, offers training, loans, and grants to small business owners, and informal entrepreneurs/hustlers who turn legit. Successful businesses help families, and in turn may help reduce the need for welfare, and may encourage more young people to value education and hard work. Read more here.

One of my Facebook friends posted a link to a story about a city in California that outsourced everything. And has not experience anarchy. Part of that, perhaps, was that some of the former employees in Maywood were hired back by the consulting firms handling those departments. Also, the consulting firms are doing a good job running the city. I don't want Trenton to outsource all of its employees, but on the other hand, maybe we can try it in one particular area. Namely, the Trenton school district. With the recent news that our school system is more of an outrage than we suspected, firing every single district employee, and starting over again with an entirely outsourced system, seems like a really, really good idea to me. I know that not every employee has hoodwinked us. So, maybe the consulting firm can hire back some of them after a forensic audit? I think that sounds fair. There are so many things holding Trenton back, and the school system is one of the biggest. It has — in conjunction with many parents — failed most of Trenton's kids for at least 20 years. Because everyone knows this, many people won't buy homes here, if they have kids. Businesses leave, and others don't open up shop here because our pool of potential employees is barely literate and can't do simple math, for starters. Fixing the schools with outside blood will probably save us in the short- and long-term.

I hope the new administration and city council are scouring everything for information on how to change. I know it's not exactly their duty to set up a grocery program at the library or help small businesses, but the more ideas they're exposed to, the better off we'll be.

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