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Mailbag: Get off those 'we know best' high horses

April 25, 2011

Too much has been made in Costa Mesa of similarities between businesses and cities. Sure, they both have employees with payrolls to meet. Both have offices and janitors and other maintenance workers. I've worked at many companies that even had their own security personnel, some with firefighters as well.

Yes, there are similarities, but there are differences, and these differences are huge. To focus solely on the similarities is unwise.

If we applied this same philosophy to baby-making, wouldn't we want to incentivize a woman to produce a baby in fewer than nine months? After all, isn't she just like the assembly line in a manufacturing plant?

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Wouldn't a pianist be more "productive" if he played Chopin's "Minute Waltz" in 54 seconds? And wouldn't a family be more "productive" if the kids were encouraged to bolt their dinner and jump up from the table to get back to studying?

It's important to be aware that differences between businesses and cities are generally polar opposites. You can quickly prove this to yourself by looking at some characteristics of organizations, such as their goals or purposes. Businesses are chiefly economic entities; they are driven by the need to produce profits. Cities are democratic entities, driven by the many needs of the public.

Homeowners and business owners can readily appreciate liquidity as an example of a major difference. If stockholders of a corporation become unhappy with its management, they can quickly liquidate their stake and buy into a different corporation.

On the other hand, homeowners and businesses are stuck. To have to pull up stakes and move somewhere else because they are unhappy with city management is difficult, painful and costly. This lack of liquidity drives city stakeholders to demand that city hall respect their needs to maintain property values and to maintain such "soft" characteristics as quality of life, safety and stability that make a city a good place to live and invest.

Unlike cities, publicly traded corporations have continuous turnover in their shareholders. So, the shareholders are not involved long enough to be considered "the corporation" in the sense that the residents and local businesses are "the city." The officers and directors of the corporation, therefore, can make policy and carry it out without fear of blowback from shareholders, most of whom can't even name the officers and directors.

Not so the city! Turnover in the population is much less, so the people are necessarily more involved.

Through prudent leadership in its first 58 years, Costa Mesa had prospered during lean and fat periods. We had a democratic and transparent government that listened to and involved the public.

Why, all of a sudden, isn't this approach any good anymore? Costa Mesa's current councilmen need to get off their elitist, "we know best" high horses and run the city like a city, not some perverted idea of a business.

Tom Egan

Costa Mesa

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