[Guest Writer Garrett O’Brien is a lifelong resident of Bellingham and lives with his wife Brittany and their three children in the Birchwood neighborhood. Garrett has worked in the building trades since 1995, has a degree in construction management, and is the president of Volonta Corporation.]
A friend with whom I have had spirited debates over the years regarding the nature of leadership recently published a book on the subject. He contends great leaders train to achieve excellence, training that he provides as a successful consultant in the field with a Doctorate in Education. I, on the other hand, believe great leaders have innate gifts which are animated and amplified by trying circumstances. Examples of this dynamic could be seen in Winston Churchill and the way his determination crystalized during the Luftwaffe bombardment of London, or the enhanced dignity Nelson Mandela amassed during his long and unjust imprisonment.
The origin of great leaders is a fascinating subject for academic discussion. However, the practical reality is that most of us are content to be in service to average bosses, platoon sergeants, coaches, and others who are simply competent and sincere. My friend and I agree that this level of leadership can be learned.
Regarding leadership, I learned from my dad that anything is possible for an organization when your effort is inclusive. Present your vision with reason, seek feedback, listen, and chart the path forward. The lesson is simple: You cannot surprise people with your vision for change—you need to bring them along with you.
This important lesson was not evident at the March 13th Bellingham City Council meeting, where the council was surprised by a municipal ordinance, pushed by the executive branch, to make open drug use an arrest-able offense. [An Ordinance Prohibiting the Use of Controlled Substances in Public Places] Their reaction was what you would expect from a policy-making branch of government that has been presented with a policy change they did not participate in. Understandably, there were questions, lots of questions.
The first round of questioning exposed the complexity of the problem and the shortcomings of the proposed ordinance. People could be arrested for public drug use, but then what? The county jail is full, so allowing officers to arrest people who they observe using drugs, without a plan following arrest, is a waste of time and effort. Unfortunately, in cases such as drug use and visible homelessness, these kinds of extemporaneous efforts are becoming more common.
Knowing there were no post-arrest options, the mayor and his team presented the concept of a community court as a possible solution and path to providing services to drug-addicted offenders. The council seemed to be aware of other cities’ successful community courts. Further, they agreed with the philosophy of addressing the root causes of destructive behavior rather than hacking at the branches. Eager to hear more about the local progress of such a court, the council quickly learned that a functioning community court is currently no more than a thought exercise for the administration. The energy of the meeting and any possible consensus devolved from there.
I support community courts and their humane efficacy. Many infractions would be better addressed in a community court rather than the traditional criminal justice system. But building a community court is a massive task that requires a sober assessment of a city’s budget. Achieving the desired outcome requires city leaders to prioritize goals and hire accordingly.
Several years ago, my wife and I were invited to Spokane to visit their community court and learn about the operation. The court was held in the public library and had an informal but organized format. Court appearances were scheduled throughout the day and to say it was a big operation would be an understatement. There were the usual court officers, attorneys, police and deputies, as well as representatives from various social services, EMS, and non-profit organizations. Most surprising to us was the small number of failure-to-appear cases. When they did occur, the offender was known to the court and it genuinely seemed that the court’s intent was to get them in to access services.
After the final hearing, as we exited the courtroom into the library lobby, we saw a middle-aged woman being fitted for eyeglasses by volunteers from the local Lions Club. At the adjacent table, a rough-looking young man was being issued a photo ID by the department of motor vehicles. Access to the most basic services requires an ID, so to have this available on-site is a critical first step to unlocking various types of aid. We left Spokane with a better understanding of the incredible amount of resources and determination that are needed to establish an effective community court, as well as the value of doing so.
Bellingham has a long way to go.