The following Guest Column was written by Noah Dawson
I recently finished binge watching one of my favorite shows, "Parks and Recreation," for the second time. For anybody who doesn’t know, "Parks and Recreation" was a comedy show on NBC which ran from 2009 to 2015. The show followed the lives of members of the parks and recreation department of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. As a comedic device, the local government and politics of the fictional town are laughably dysfunctional. Watching the show got me to thinking about how our city, Amarillo Texas, stands in comparison, and I found that Pawnee seems to have a better functioning government and political system than our city. I looked at the big money politics of both cities, the rules regarding speaking at city council meetings, the finances of the city governments, and the moral convictions of each city’s leaders. As a quick warning, this piece does contain some minor spoilers for the show.
The heart of our political system is the people, and by the people, I mean the money that is used to influence politicians. One of the recurring elements of the show is the Newport family, which owns the fictional Sweetums Corporation, using its money to influence the government. In the show, the Newports are well known by the people, live in the city, and are generally well liked by the people of Pawnee. In one season of the show, the main character, Leslie Knope, runs against one of the members of the Newport family for a place on the city council. Here in Amarillo, the big money that seems to have the most influence are Super PACs, which are often from far away and are run by people the average voter is unfamiliar with. I don’t want to sound like some conspiracy theorist, but it often seems like we don’t know who our real leaders are.
Recently, the most infamous part of Amarillo’s local politics have been events during the public comment period of city council meetings. First though, let's look at how Pawnee handles public comments during city council meetings. The people of Pawnee may speak without having to sign up, and they may speak for as long as they like, with rules for public comments giving much freedom to the people of Pawnee, at least compared to the people of Amarillo. In Amarillo, you must sign up prior to the meeting, you are limited to three minutes, and you must hope that you signed up early enough, because slots can be, and sometimes are, filled up. Citizens are barred from clapping, and the city once tried to enforce an unlawful ban stopping people from filming on their cellphones. Even with all of these restrictions, it has been made clear by some on the council that Amarillo already has too much freedom.
Another recurring element of "Parks and Recreation" is the finances of the City of Pawnee. Though the city does have financial difficulties, the city doesn’t shy away from them. The city at times makes financially responsible cuts, and the cost of each city project is always a major concern. The problems caused by reckless spending become a major issue (spoiler alert) when another one of the fictional cities featured in the show, Eagleton, is forced to merge with Pawnee after wasting all of its money on various luxuries. Here in Amarillo, the kind of fiscal discipline exhibited by Pawnee seems to not exist. We are building a stadium (err, uhh, ‘MPEV’) that is costing the city tens of millions of dollars. Not only is the price tag astronomical, but there is a plethora of evidence that investing in sports venues is not a sound economic choice.
Finally, the moral character of city leaders must be examined. In Pawnee (spoiler alert), the Leslie Knope spends her time on the city council fighting for what she believes in. She consciously breaks with the status quo upheld by the other councilors. What does Leslie Knope believe in? She wants to make the city of Pawnee better for the people, and, in doing so, she listens to the people, and takes their points seriously. She engages with the people, because the people are the reason she does her job. Even though I personally identify more with the politics of Ron Swanson, the libertarian character, Leslie Knope has a strong moral character. Here in Amarillo, it seems that our leaders care about downtown more than the people of the entire city, and they tend to unanimously uphold the status quo. As for listening to the people, it seems that our leaders see the public comment period (especially when dissenters are speaking) is a burden, rather than a time to glean insight into why some feel they could be doing things different.
Recently, there has been some deal of controversy over various parody pages satirizing the city of Amarillo. With Amarillo seeming to be more dysfunctional than a laughably dysfunctional city from a work of fiction, I think we need to ask if the pages are parodying the city, or if the city is parodying functional government.