How Real is “Parks and Recreation?”

April 10, 2009 at 5:28 pm (Movies and TV, Politics)

Keeping in mind that anything I say here is MY OWN PERSONAL OPINION and NOT the opinions of any body I am elected to, or official body at all…Here is my take on NBC’s new show, “Parks and Recreation” as far as its general accuracy. It’s hilarious. Ten minutes in, I called my friend (a Borough Manager) and said, “TELL me you’re watching this!” He wasn’t, but I have a feeling he will be.  I have no frame of reference as to whether this show is funny to the masses, but being who and where I am and doing what I do, I nearly peed myself laughing. Here’s why.

Amy Poehler’s character is not necessarily meant as a “dumb blonde” as much as she’s meant to represent a head-in-the-clouds idealist who comes up with grandiose ideas but is oblivious to the processes and logistics of putting her ideas into action. I have been this person before, though I like to think I have been more realistic and accepting when confronted with the obstacles of a situation, and altering the plan to fit pre-existing parameters. Poehler’s character is funny because of the oblivious-ness and her unwillingness or inability to LISTEN, or to back down.  I have known people like her, both elected and resident. While Poehler amuses me, I have not necessarily been amused by these folks in real life. I do have a secret list of top 20 residents I’d like to see move somewhere else.

Amy Poehler’s assistant is a devious and subversive little guy. One person, in the right position, can cause a lot of damage in a government office if that person is the undermining type.  That is true, and is why it’s reeeally important to keep the lines of communication open with city staff so that if someone has an axe to grind, you can work it out before it goes critical. Which sometimes, it does anyway.  A few of the characters on this show had personal agendas which is also sometimes true, though I have to say that I’ve been lucky during my 6 years of council service not to have bumped into this too often. I understand that in other places, certainly larger places, this is not the case.

The over-the-top Republican councilman who wishes he could privatize the whole government? Yes, I’ve known someone like him. Their strategy of giving Poehler her own “sub-committee to study the issue” can be taken a couple of ways…we are required to approach each issue after having conducted due diligence . Appointing a sub-committee can be one legitimate way of involving the community in a project, and having that committee do the due diligence on your behalf…or…it can be a way to make someone or a group of someones feel like the issue is being handled without actually having to do anything about it. I have seen examples of both.

The funniest thing on this show, for me, was when the city councilman sent Poehler to the public feedback meeting while he hid in his office, saying, “Nobody wants to go to those things because it’s two straight hours of the public yelling at you. I HATE the public.”  I came onto Council a lot like Poehler, but now that I’m on my way out, I’ve become more like the misanthropic guy; the good thing about a Democracy is that everyone has a voice, but the bad thing about a Democracy is that everyone has a voice. We are very hard on our elected officials. The hat does have a price to wear. People are moreso mean and complaining than they are reasonable and thankful…though people in the latter category do exist. Many times the loudest critics are the people who don’t have all the information, or people who don’t understand the information they’ve been given. The best way to interact with your public officials is going to be reasonable, polite, and asking a lot of questions to make sure you understand what’s going on. Bringing positive energy is a good thing as long as you’re being open and realistic; negative energy can become positive if it’s cosntructive and used to trouble-shoot, and if good suggestions come from the discussions.

Poehler says she’s going to befriend the Borough Manager because that’s the one guy in a city who knows where all the bodies are buried. That’s the truth. If you want to get something done, if you want to know the one person who has ALL the deets on anything or knows where to get them…be nice to your city manager.  Right now, there are 3x the positions, and not enough city managers…the market is competitive and changes with the political winds. So it’s no wonder that the city manager on TV said he lost his idealism in his first 2 years. There is nobody more valuable but also nobody more pounded on by electeds, residents, or staff.

Poehler asks whether a big ditch can be turned into a park, and the city manager explains that there are lots of costs, lots of hoops, lots of red tape she isn’t aware of. That is also the truth. It would involve getting the approval of the planning commission and zoning boards, meeting with officials to get money (which is ESPECIALLY hard right now!!!), to begin with. Then there would have to be architectural and landscape designers involved, bidding processes for equipment, a resident needs’ survey; we’d have to do grant applications to state, federal, and other organizations. We’d have to have our engineers review the plans to make sure they wouldn’t conflict with gas or sewer lines, and evaluate them for things like water run-off. We’d have to involve the borough solicitor regarding liability issues and ownership of any donated equipment…Yeah. The wheels of government turn VERY slowly. I don’t blame beauracracy for that. I blame how litigious our society has become, that you have to be overcareful with even the tiniest of decisions in government because of a lawsuit’s price tag, win or lose.

A friend of mine said she worked for a Parks & Recreation Department for 6 years, and there wasn’t anything funny about it. While I believe my friend more than she realizes, I also think it’s possible to derive humor from pretty much any situation if you step back far enough. I wish I could write an episode of this show, because there really are funny things that happen behind the scenes. Overall…it’s pretty accurate stuff. I’m interested to see where this show goes.


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