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What's wrong with local government? 

Dysfunctional: (adj.) Functioning incorrectly or abnormally; failing to fulfill the purposes accepted as normal or beneficial; diminished in strength, quality, or utility; a condition often approached by local government in Mecklenburg County.

School Board: Over the past decade, the CMS Board of Education has worked hard to earn its reputation as a loud, dysfunctional circus. Board members with good sense were often caught in the crossfire of Vilma Leake's acid tongue; Larry Gauvreau's sneering, off-the-subject rants; and George Dunlap's silly macho poses, resulting in rancorous deadlocks that left little time to get anything done. That's the board that oversaw the "neighborhood schools" movement's dismantling of decades of racial integration, leading to today's tragic re-segregation of CMS, and Charlotte's admission to the ranks of U.S. cities that have let their schools devolve into a core of poor, low-achieving urban schools surrounded by a ring of more affluent, higher-achieving ones.

Leake and Dunlap left for spots on the County Commission, but things didn't get any better. Last year, the school board empowered Supt. Gorman to lay off hundreds of teachers while keeping CMS' useless TV channel, actions that infuriated much of the community.

Meanwhile, a battle royal developed over a no-brainer improvement in the system's bullying policy, with conservatives claiming the new plan was an attempt to fulfill a "homosexual agenda"; and CMS administration continued to be a nearly impenetrable bureaucratic maze, particularly for parents (whose taxes, of course, pay for the maze rats' jobs). If that wasn't enough, the past few months have seen rancor rising in the community over student assignments and magnet schools, resulting in, among other things, the incredible decision to dismantle the system's most successful curriculum, Myers Park High's IB program.

This week, a new school board with five new members will take over, so -- of course -- they plan to reopen the student assignment beehive. So, is the school board truly dysfunctional? They were for awhile, but then the post-Leake/Dunlap board became something worse: functional but defective, if not destructive. The new board sworn in this week has a chance to revive the board's functionality, and here's hoping they can manage it. If they don't, or can't, look for another new crew to take over come the next election.

County Commission: At least the school board members realize how angry and frustrated citizens are over their performance. Apparently the same can't be said of the County Commission, or at least the Democratic majority on the commission, judging by Chair Jennifer Roberts' recent Observer op-ed, in which she "explained" that all proper procedures have been taken to correct the DSS fiasco.

The Department of Social Services ran a program to give gifts to poor children at Christmas -- without doubt, a worthy goal -- but it was so terribly mismanaged, particularly in its abysmal record-keeping, that a program that should have garnered nothing but positive PR for DSS became a symbol of government incompetence and possible corruption.

Roberts is correct that the county has taken several necessary steps to get to the bottom of the mess and ensure that it doesn't happen again; however, her explanation completely misses the point that's most overheard in public discussions of the fiasco: If DSS had been properly overseen by the county -- or even overseen at all -- the embarrassing debacle could not have occurred. The obvious offender in the matter (obvious, it seems, to everyone but the Dems on the commission) is County Manager Harry Jones. His non-existent oversight (I was going to write "incompetent oversight," but there has to be some oversight for it to be incompetent) is reason aplenty for at least a public censure, if not outright dismissal. Instead, the commission compounded the disaster by handing Jones a $38,000 performance bonus -- even after reports surfaced of Jones' attempt to silence a critic by forwarding the man's e-mail to his corporate boss, and on the heels of Jones cutting county jobs and denying raises to county employees. It's debatable whether the commissioners' handling of Jones' poor oversight of DSS qualifies as dysfunction per se, but there's little doubt that it was a first-class case of cluelessness, or tone-deafness to the public's concerns and current mood, which, to put it mildly, is not sympathetic to the powers that be.

City Council: For genuine dysfunction, look no farther than the past few years of city council floundering. Half the time, council members have seemed lost during meetings, waiting for city staff to tell them what's going on in the city the council's supposed to be running.

Examples of council's flailing are many, but space limits us here to four. Rather than deal forcefully with the high rate of foreclosures that have ruined entire neighborhoods, all council can come up with to address the disaster is to threaten to tear the houses down; to somehow "educate" homebuyers about risky loans, which is tantamount to telling someone with third-degree burns not to play with matches; and, my favorite, letting local financial institutions know that irresponsible lending has a bad impact on neighborhoods. Now that's telling those bankers a thing or two, huh?

Council also made the, to this writer, incomprehensible decision to divert money slated for fixing our wretched streets to the hiring of more police officers, although the crime rate has dropped. And, of course there was the broad comedy provided by council's "We're gonna buy Eastland Mall ... no, we're not ... yes, we are ... no we're not" vaudeville act.

On top of everything else, council got onboard the "let's piss off voters by giving bonuses to public officials" bandwagon, giving City Manager Curt Walton a $16K bonus and City Attorney Mac McCarley $15K, during a tough year when city employees didn't get raises or merit-based bonuses. As with the county commission, tone-deafness rules the roost.

Hopefully, there's some hope for improvement. New faces, and a new, energetic mayor may be able to better focus the city's resources on its real problems. Until that happens, though, hunker down and keep your eyes open.

Deliver Us From Weasels, a collection of articles and columns by John Grooms, published by Main Street Rag Publishing, is available at Park Road Books and Joseph-Beth Booksellers in SouthPark, for $14.95. On Friday, Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m., the author will read from, discuss, and sign copies of the book at Park Road Books in the Park Road Shopping Center. Hear the author interviewed on Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins at www.wfae.org/wfae/18_93_0.cfm?do=detail&id=11044.

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