Saturday, October 31, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Models For Civic Activism

In Cincinnati, a clumsily written ballot measure would effectively strangle any rail project in the city and Joe Sprengard is fighting to strike it down. We'll talk with Joe about forming Cincinnatians for Progress and how he built a political movement in that city.

And we'll revisit my conversation with Alex Steffen. Alex is a journalist and author who runs the organization World The site practices what he calls "Solutions based journalism" on the environment and has become the go-to source for forward thinking solutions on climate change and sustainability. Alex joins us to tell us about this new vision for journalism and how to build a brighter future.

Smart City
is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Great Mayors: San Francisco's Gavin Newsom

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is a mayor in the tradition of Denver’s John Hickenlooper.

Coming from a restaurant background, skeptics about his potential as mayor were outspoken and prevalent. And yet, he defied all expectations and two years ago, he got 72% of the vote in his re-election campaign that exploited a record that had attracted national attention.

When he was first elected in 2003, Mayor Newsom was seen by many as a young, inexperienced businessman who had made his political name by promising to slash welfare checks to the homeless. He was expected to be part of the “downtown crowd” who elected him and to continue the blatant patronage of his political mentor, Mayor Willie Brown.

Investing His Popularity

By the time of his re-election campaign, one of San Francisco's youngest mayor still fights the image of a silver spoon liberal, but along the way, he ended up being politically courageous and progressive, dynamiting the culture of cronyism and influence-peddling in City Hall. His most dramatic moment was when he put all his political chips on the line less than two months into his term when he ordered city government to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

Few mayors are more wonkish than Mayor Newsome, who can cite “best practices,” mindlessly quote a blizzard of statistics, and cannot resist his affinity for new programs of the week. While he sometimes falls short on execution and he needs to develop a thicker skin, he cannot be faulted for thinking big, like universal health care for all citizens of San Francisco.

It is the good will from same sex marriages that propelled him into easy re-election that healed much of the bitter divisions that had characterized his hometown. To follow up, he walked the picket lines with locked-out hotel workers and developed a health care plan for 82,000 uninsured residents. Both actions angered business leaders.

Getting Priorities Right

Mayor Newsom delivered on his promise to make the city “greener” by planting more than 17,500 trees and pushing for rigorous green building standards. He helped to strengthen the economy by luring biotech companies and lobbying successfully to bring the state's new stem cell center to the city, and worked to cut bureaucracy and make government more accessible by establishing a 311 line that connects callers to a live operator who provides information about city services.

The mayor considers his efforts on homelessness to be one of his crowning achievements, with more than 2,000 people being moved off the streets and into housing under his watch, according to statistics provided by his office.

While his admission of a drinking problem and the betrayal of a political aide by having an affair with his wife, it’s hard to see his apologies as much political baggage in a town known for its liberal attitudes.


Instead of trying to gain mayoral control of the school district or allow the state to take it over, like some mayors have done, Mayor Newsom has worked with the district to improve public schools. This collaboration has led to San Francisco schools being recognized as among the highest-achieving urban schools in the nation.

While school districts throughout California are laying off teachers, San Francisco is giving teachers a raise and helping to fund important programs like school Wellness Centers and after-school study programs. San Francisco has already implemented universal pre-school, and Newsom is now working in partnership with the California State University system to help lower drop-out rates and promote even greater student achievement by guaranteeing a place at San Francisco State University and initial tuition support for every public school student who works to meet the entrance requirements.

The Environmental Protection Agency has rated San Francisco #2 in the nation in terms of energy-efficient commercial buildings – nearly equaling Los Angeles, a city four times as large. The city has one of the most aggressive local solar incentives in America and among the highest recycling rate in the nation.

One Of The Best

It has lowered carbon emissions well below levels called for in the Kyoto Protocol, and verified these numbers with third-party data. Newsom has helped attract more than $500 million to clean up and convert former industrial and military sites. And through comprehensive job training, he is working to make sure that the growing green economy includes those who were once locked out of the old industrial economy.

While the bond rating of the State of California was reduced to one of the lowest in the nation, San Francisco’s bond rating was increased.

Mayor Newsom has been called “one of the best mayors in America” by Newsweek because he has not been afraid to make bold reforms. San Francisco has implemented comprehensive government accountability reform and increased public service through innovations like a central 311 line to access government services.


Under Mayor Newsom’s leadership, the San Francisco Police Department met its mandated staffing level for the first time, while keeping young people out of state prison and moving them into job training to reduce recidivism. Meanwhile, technologies like “Shot Spotter” and crime mapping have been keys to a 20% drop in crime since March, 2008 (homicides are down 60.7% in that same time).

For us, the lessons of Mayor Newsom’s leadership are that there is a political payoff to staking out the high moral ground, to rooting out corruption wherever it is found, to admitting mistakes quickly and to emphasizing action and decisiveness.

Most of all, he understands that the culture of City Hall is one of the biggest enemies to a candidate of change, because bureacrats adopt the language of the new mayor but don't change their behavior, instead trying to wait him out.

From policies to shake up the police department to removing costly cronies of the previous mayor, Mayor Newsom has come to realize how hard it is to change attitudes and the productivity of the public sector, but he realizes that he must do it nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Great Mayors: Charleston's Joe Riley

Mayor Joe Riley has been a great mayor for so long he’s often overlooked these days.

Few who see him would cast him as a political powerbroker. And yet, he has reshaped this city to such an extent that it’s essentially unrecognizable from the poor, racially torn backwater that had lost hope in the future in the 1970s.

No city – and its success – is more associated with a single mayor than Charleston, South Carolina. It’s not just that he’s been mayor for 34 years. It’s that he strides over the progress of his city like a force of nature, which is impressive for someone who embodies the highly-educated Southern gentleman.

These days, it’s hard to remember that he was a young Turk when he was elected, and that’s why it’s impressive that his energy for improving his city has never flagged and that his particular leadership for high quality public realm, built environment and the physical bones of his city continues unabated.

Walking The Walk

In a phrase, his philosophy is to pursue a clear vision while keeping watchful attention on the small details. And in this regard, there is nothing that escapes his attention, from creating neighborhood councils to selecting the materials for public improvements.

Mayor Riley vigorously turned Charleston around by obsessing on the strong sense of place that characterizes his city. He preserved the city’s historic qualities and improved them with new parks, developments and attractions in character with the classic 18th and 19th century architecture that is his city’s brand.

“You have a personal relationship with people. You pick up their garbage. You make them feel safe. You try to help them when they are in trouble. It’s a chance to do things directly for people—for the poorest person in town as well as the rich.”

When Charleston was hit by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, he ordered an all-out evacuation. Mayor Riley and city staff helped people to safety and they stayed behind to protect the city. Despite the massive destruction of the hurricane, he never looked back, giving birth to a program to make Charleston even more beautiful than before.

Details, Details

Once again, his attention to detail became his city’s competitive edge, because it again showed what distinguishes a good city from a great one.

Under his leadership, Charleston has seen an impressive decrease in serious crime over the past two decades, the city has been a national leader in innovative police practices, especially in the field of community-oriented policing.

Mayor Riley has championed public-private partnerships to stimulate new development and restoration in historic downtown Charleston, including the dramatic rebirth of King Street, Charleston’s main street, from Saks Fifth Avenue on King Street to the development of Charleston Place, a major hotel and retail shopping complex, to the creation of the award-winning Visitor Reception and Transportation Center.

Charleston’s scattered-site housing program received a Presidential Design Award and its housing and community development initiatives have also won four HUD Blue Ribbon Awards for Best Practices.

Design Matters

Mayor Riley created Charleston’s Waterfront Park and pursues an ambitious plan to give the public access to the water’s edge. He led development of internationally known Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston Symphony, Charleston Ballet Theater, and his plans include a new symphony hall on the waterfront.

Early in his administration, he created the Office of the Ombudsman and meets monthly with small groups of residents to share information and discuss neighborhood concerns. In 1999, the mayor established an annual Neighborhood Presidents Roundtable, which brings all of the neighborhood presidents together to share success stories and to receive leadership training as well as information on city projects.

As Charleston’s historic core gentrified, Mayor Riley insisted that lower-income residents be part of the revival. Long before other cities began toying with new designs for public housing, Charleston was winning architecture awards for its scattered-site homes and even a transitional shelter for the homeless. Riley has always believed that low-income housing works better, both for neighborhoods and for the residents, when it doesn’t look like public housing.

Mayor Riley has no formal training in architecture or urban planning. He’s honed his flair for design simply by walking, observing and reading. It’s crucial, Riley says, for all mayors to master a few principles of urban design because so many blueprints come across their desks.

Getting It Right

That’s why he established the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. In the past 18 years, some 600 mayors have attended two-day seminars where they discuss urban design issues facing their cities with experts and other mayors. They leave the seminars not only brimming with ideas for current projects but also as confident clients who know what to demand of architects and planners.

Mayor Riley has shaped Charleston in countless other ways. He diffused racial tensions by working closely with the African-American community and appointing the city’s first black police chief, Reuben Greenberg, who pioneered the concept of community policing.

When Hurricane Hugo slammed into Charleston in 1989, Riley won wide praise for getting the city cleaned up quickly and back on its feet. He managed to develop a robust tourist economy without turning Charleston into a garish theme park.

Riley snagged for his city the renowned Spoleto arts festival, which makes Charleston the world’s culture capital for 17 days each spring, and he is currently championing a plan to build the International Museum of African-American History.

People First

As Riley seeks reelection to an unprecedented ninth term as mayor, it is also easy to see Riley as a living argument against term limits. Charleston is a monument to his consistent leadership and firm belief in the importance of civic space. “Americans spend a great deal of time on their homes — the front yard, the back yard, the private zone,” Mayor Riley said. “But the public realm, what all citizens own together, has a collective value that is essential to the quality of life of a community.”

His advice for improving quality of life and economic health of a city:

“"You need to make the heart, or center, of the city attractive, safe and lively. People help nourish and sustain the city. In the restoration of a city, you need to be sure that you restore that sense of people wanting to be active. It's not just about the tax base or the jobs. What the top cities in the world have is a happy, active public realm-the arts organizations, festivals and events that allow people to celebrate their city and love their city."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Great Mayors: D.C.'s Anthony Williams

When Anthony Williams was elected in 1999 as the fourth mayor of Washington, D.C., the city was in crisis, racked with corruption and teetering on the financial brink. As a result, his most pressing objectives were to restore the public’s confidence in their city government.

In fact, when he was first elected, the District of Columbia government was under the control of the federally-appointed District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority. The city topped the list of cities with the most employees per 100,000, and as a result, the workforce was bloated and costs were extreme.

By “right-sizing” the workforce and restoring fiscal accountability, Mayor Williams moved quickly to balance the city's budget and bring proven management practices to the operation of the government. His work put the city on track for the return to self-government as the District delivered a surplus of $185 million in fiscal year 1997. The cumulative fund balance swung from a deficit of $518 million to a surplus of nearly $1.6 billion, and during this same period, the District’s bond ratings went from “junk bond” status to “A” category by all three major rating agencies.

Getting It Right

Meanwhile, Mayor Williams launched an aggressive campaign to lure investment back into the District of Columbia, using innovative financing and tax incentives. The economic recovery and transformation of the District of Columbia remains one of the most dramatic turnarounds of any major American city.

Driven by a growth in local revenues, income and sales taxes, the District had the resources to improve services, lower tax rates, improve the performance of city agencies and invest in its infrastructure and human services. After years of declining population, the District of Columbia recorded growth in population. Chief among accomplishments was establishing the city as a hub of African-American professionals.

The District’s crime rate went down dramatically, new vibrancy came to downtown areas, major league baseball returned to Nation’s Capital and sweeping plans for development along both sides of the Anacostia River were begun.

Perceptions Matter

When Mayor Williams left office, gone was the public image of political anarchy embodied by his predecessor, Marion Barry, and in its place was a reputation of the District of Columbia as a fiscally responsible city where public servants were held accountable and a focus on the big picture produced major change.

Williams came to the job with technical skills needed. As chief financial officer for the state of Connecticut, the Department of Agriculture, and the Washington, D.C., he knew how to balance the books.

But he also brought skills that come with working in the inherently chaotic public sector, where authorities overlap and personalities matter as much as numbers. He knew how to wrestle for control of bureaucratic territory; he knew how to use the resources at his disposal to leverage his ideas; and he knew how to build alliances and move an agenda forward.

Knowing When To Lead And When To Follow

So when he became mayor, Mayor Williams knew that it wasn’t enough to simply control the budget. He had to win public support for structural reforms and innovations, and with his financial background, it’s no surprise that he came up with a formula for how to do it: seventy percent follow and thirty percent lead.

“Look at it this way,” he said. “You’re the pre-eminent leader of your city, and you’re also the butler. And I don’t say that in a pejorative way. You are a public servant. Seventy percent of the time, if you say jump, I say, how high? If the toilet overflows in your house, I need to be at your house figuring out what the problem is. There is no problem too small for the mayor. And there is no one in the government lower than the mayor for these purposes – you are there to be responsible to your people, seventy percent of the time.

“The other thirty percent of the time, you are there to lead,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out, what are the one or two or three issues where you’re going to lead, and what are the other issues where you’re going to follow. You need to figure that out, and you need to make that balance of short term versus long term.”

Facing Facts

Coming into the job, Williams knew what he had to follow on, and what he had to lead on. He had to follow the lead of a public that demanded better schools, cleanliness and crime-fighting. And he had to lead the public when it came to the steps needed to upgrade government and start transforming the city.

He said his agenda was grounded in a basic idea: the challenge of the modern American city is to recover from generations of decline.

All American cities have gone through the same stages, Mayor Williams said they expanded in the nineteenth century, stagnated after the Depression, and declined in the postwar era as America moved to the suburbs on President Eisenhower’s new interstates. Federal programs designed in the 1960s and 1970s to arrest that decline – “urban renewal” and the like – didn’t help much, Williams said. “Whatever we did with urban renewal and whatever came after it, none of it really substantively changed the direction of cities.”

Raising Expectations

To survive today, cities need to make themselves attractive and competitive, combining sound bookkeeping with creative development strategies, he said. For his city, the mayor had the vision of a revived metroplex drawing investment from around the nation and the globe.

But to win support for any long-range development strategies, Williams knew he had to shore up support with a short-term agenda that addressed citizens’ most basic needs. So he set out to fix the basics.

He improved customer service, improved the city’s website, he cleaned the streets and put more cops on the beat and he shortening lines waiting for city services. When he made unpopular decisions, he framed them as steps towards better public service. He took on the labor unions, he shut down a hugely inefficient but still popular public hospital, he helped facilitate new development and he focused on baseball and riverfronts.

“You know what I say when people ask me about my greatest accomplishment as mayor? It was not necessarily fixing any one thing,” Mayor Williams said. “It was raising the expectations of my people.”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Great Mayors: Atlanta's Shirley Franklin

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin is widely recognized as one of America’s great mayors, taking office at a time when her city was demoralized, government was seen as part of the problem and city government was racked with corruption.

When she leaves office in a few weeks, she will have restored trust in government by taking no prisoners when it came to ethical government, to forging partnerships and to using city services as leverage to produce regional cooperation. Most impressively, she will leave as Atlanta distinguishes itself as one of the few cities attracting people back into its city limits.

As a long-time city administrator in Atlanta, there was no learning curve for her when it came time to get back to the basics with city services. She put policy first and said politics and sound policy should be kept separate. She said: “I'm an unintentional politician. I've always been interested in the policy and not in the political strategy."

Instilling Pride

She decided to run for mayor because she was discouraged by the “lack of public trust that seemed to be pervasive. It was in the black community, the white community, the newcomers, young people, older folks. There was a sense that government couldn't do it right."

She had little name recognition when she kicked off her campaign for mayor, but eventually she raised $3.2 million and ran on a reform platform, releasing copies of her income tax returns and posting campaign contributions on her website. "You make me mayor, and I'll make you proud" was her campaign theme.

Once elected, she gave equal attention to developing a clear message, to focusing on ideas and building coalitions with other elected officials. After election, she created more than two dozen public-private task forces to evaluate city functions, but what she ultimately did was what was unusual: she followed the recommendations.

Advice For New Mayors

She spent two years hammering the need for a modern sewerage system, and voters overwhelmingly approved the $3 billion upgrading of the system. More importantly, she used her success as the platform for reform on issues such as homelessness, school improvements and fiscal integrity for the city.

As for the issues of race, when she took office, the first question in Atlanta was what will the black community think and what will the white community think. Because of her emphasis on right over race, the question changed to what was the right thing to do. Evidence of her impact is that the majority African-American city is poised to elect a Caucasian mayor.

As a result, Mayor Franklin successfully implemented a multi-million dollar affordable housing program, expanded the nation’s busiest airport, and established regional plans for economic development, homelessness and open space.

So what is Mayor Franklin’s advice to city mayors? According to her comments to Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, success is about strategic focus, private sector partnerships, and high standards.

Strategic Focus

Once elected, Mayor Franklin didn’t take on everything at once. She focused on three goals: balance the budget, fix the sewers, and pass ethics reform legislation.

The first two were legal requirements. The third was a central campaign promise. For her first few years, the mayor said she talked about almost nothing else.

“You can do a hundred things, and that’s fine, but when you go from neighborhood to neighborhood and every time you’re out there you’re talking about something else, people don’t really understand,” she said. “And it’s harder to judge you. If I don’t get water and sewer done, you know that’s a problem.”

Private Sector Partnerships

Mayor Franklin credits the private sector with a major role in her successes. “The city has a history of public-private partnerships going back a hundred years,” she said. “There is hardly anything that we’ve done in Atlanta successfully that has not been a joint effort with the private sector since day one.”

The process Mayor Franklin relies on is a simple one: involve the private sector early. Typically, she’ll create working groups and ask them to consider possible fixes to a given problem.

Then, when it’s time to raise money and implement a solution, she’ll have strong support in place. “I’ve used this private sector model with outside committees 24 or 25 times,” she said. “Every time it’s successful. Because there’s broader buy-in for what we implement if we start with the private sector.”

High Standards

Franklin’s advice: don’t lower them.

“If you need $100 million, tell people that’s how much you need,” she said. “I may only get to $25 or $50 million, but at least we’re not patting ourselves on the back too soon. We don’t say, we got $25 million and we’re done.

“We say we need a billion, and we got the first $100 million, and by golly somebody out in the audience should help us get the other $900 million. That’s the approach we take.

“I’m not one of those people who ran on ‘no new taxes. I ran on efficiency and effectiveness. I did not run on, ‘You will never have to pay your way.’ Because I think that’s a huge mistake.

“There’s nothing like being mayor of a city that’s broke. So I would say to set your target based on what you really need to get it done, and then rally those people that have a big enough view of the world to come to your aid so you can add to it incrementally.”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Civic Change

This week on Smart City we'll talk to the creator of one of my favorite websites, Matt Lerner is the Chief Technology Officer of, a company that builds software for civic life. He'll tell us about making software that makes the world a better place.

And we'll talk to Sadhu Johnston. Sadhu is completing his tenure as Chicago's Chief Environmental Officer where he's been making Chicago a better place. He'll tell us about the challenges in implementing real change in the city, and how cities are co-operating instead of competing to make a real difference in climate change.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Birmingham Mayor Objects To His City's I-269

Watch this 10 minute video. Replace Memphis every time they say Birmingham. Substitute I-269 every time they say Birmingham Beltline. They have the same Chamber, the same project, the same inner-city desires and the same need for transit. Fascinating and frightening.

A recent report on Blueprint America for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, hones in on a specific six-lane interstate highway projected for Jefferson County’s Northern Beltline, encircling Birmingham, Alabama. The highway, which is slated for completion in 2025, is receiving criticism from locals—as well as Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford.

“We have built enough interstates to kill our inner-cities.” Langford said in the video interview with Blueprint America correspondent Rick Karr. “Yes, we can get from point A to point B but now what we are doing is cycling traffic around because of the grandiose idea that ‘we need more interstates.’ No, we don’t need more interstates—we need high-speed public transportation. But we’re always spending our money in the wrong places.”

Modern planners see highways as a thing of the past, considering that in many places they have been detrimental to the development of cities by creating vast regions of sprawl. So why bother building more?

“It’s an entirely political process.” said David Burwell on Blueprint America. “No one wants to turn off that federal spigot of money.”

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Great Mayors: Denver's John Hickenlooper

Our list of great city mayors always starts with Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.

A geologist and restaurateur by profession, he’s been a remarkable mayor who built record approval ratings throughout his entire region and invested them to produce breathtaking results – nationally praised homeless program, a regional light rail system, growth plans, downtown development, and more.

Most of all, he build a management team that is the envy of most cities, and he did it by taking a distinctly nonpolitical view of it. His criterion for talent was simple: proven leaders in their field who would demand excellence and results. For the head of parks or schools, he asked his transition team to identify the best in the nation and send him a couple of recommendations without any consideration about who gave him money or who worked for his election. The outcomes have proven him right.

It seems to us that hallmarks of his transition period are that it focused on talent and he kept the process tight -- six weeks.

The Most Precious Resource: Time

Another hallmark from the launching of his administration was that time matters. He moved assertively because he had a window of opportunity to reinforce the message of change that the voters had demanded at the polls. Often, the first 60 days set the narrative for a new mayor for his entire term.

It comes from the intense scrutiny of every action that the media, and subsequently the public, define and repeat a narrative, and Mayor Hickenlooper’s approach shaped and reinforced the narrative that he wanted for his administration. Incidentally, the consolidated government over which Hickenlooper is mayor has been a powerful platform for setting a bold vision and executing the strategies to make it happen.

Here a report on Mayor Hickenlooper’s advice to the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia in its Profiles in Leadership: America’s Great Mayors programs.

The John Hickenlooper Guide To Civic Success

We started our Profiles in Leadership: America’s Great Mayors series to answer a simple question: what does a great mayor look like?

We weren’t expecting to find out that, sometimes, a great mayor looks like a brewpub manager. But John Hickenlooper is used to surprising people.

He surprised his friends and family in Narberth by morphing from an awkward, unambitious kid into a dynamic, successful businessman. He surprised his bankers by turning a risky brewpub venture into a catalyst for a neighborhood’s development. He surprised everyone in Denver by beating the pants off of a field of well-established politicians and becoming mayor.

And he surprised our audience by explaining that restaurants and city halls aren’t that different. “I think that any candidate is greatly improved by having spent a few years running a big, popular restaurant,” he said. “Whether it’s the restaurant or a big city, you never have enough money. You have a diverse group of people you’ve got to weld into a team. And the public is always ticked off about something.”

In 2003, Hickenlooper rode a wave of ticked-off voters to victory. Public frustration with Denver’s political establishment had opened the door to an outsider candidate like him. Hickenlooper seized the opportunity not by railing against his opponents but by presenting a positive vision for the city. He emphasized the need for teamwork. He vowed to improve city services and balance the budget. He promised to end the old-school game of political insider-ism and put the best possible person in every city job.

So far, he has delivered enough that his re-election is virtually assured. He balanced the budget despite declining revenues. He passed key civil service reforms. He reached far beyond his circle of friends and supporters to find qualified, diverse appointees. He helped end years of city-suburb political warfare, paving the way for a groundbreaking regional transportation initiative. TIME Magazine has called him one of America’s top big city mayors, and he faces no significant competition for his second term.

How did he do it? He turned to the lessons he learned on the brewpub floor.

Lesson One: Listen

As a candidate, Hickenlooper listened to local businesspeople and found out that tax revenues were more likely to shrink than to grow. That allowed him to craft a smart budget that helped him win early endorsements from the local papers. He listened to leaders in the towns and suburbs surrounding Denver. That helped him end years of animosity and start money-saving, region-growing regional projects. He listened to average Janes and Joes all around Denver, and that helped him grasp the importance of improving city services and restoring faith in government.

And from the minute he launched his campaign, he listened to his own gut instincts. “At that first meeting, we’re sitting there with a bunch of political consultants,” he recalled. “There’s six other candidates- it’s almost like a made-for-TV movie – there’s the Greek former police chief, the Latino former city auditor, the African American state senator – all the way down the list. And one of the people said, ‘You’re at 3 percent in the polls. If you’re going to distinguish yourself, you’ve got to pull down one of these frontrunners.’ And my wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well that’s exactly the direction we’re not running.’

“We never did opposition research. We never did a negative ad. We never attacked. We tried to run a campaign where we said, ‘We’re going to hire the best person for the job for every single job in the city.’ We were going to focus on being transparent, inclusive, and collaborative in a way that no one in the city has seen.” The message worked: Hickenlooper won 65 percent of the final vote.

Lesson Two: Know Your Real Budget

One of the first things that candidate Hickenlooper did was make the rounds of local businesses. Based on what he heard, along with other research, he decided that instead of tax growth, Denver was about to see a significant decrease in tax revenue; so he made up a budget, took it to the newspapers, and won early endorsements.

The next thing he knew, he had jumped to 33 percent in the polls, with his nearest competition at 15. “I still remember my wife reading the details,” he said, “and she was not terribly happy about this. She lowered the newspaper so just her eyes were above it and said, ‘You never told me you were going to win.’”

But he did win, and his projections proved correct. But he arrived armed with the mandate he needed to make tough budget cuts.

Lesson Three: Know your Real Competition

When Hickenlooper opened his brewpub in a half-forgotten downtown neighborhood, his employees thought he was crazy when he put ads for other local restaurants in his restrooms. “The other restaurants couldn’t believe it. Our staff came up to me and said, what are you doing?” he recalled. “I said, they’re not our competitors. You’ve got to look at our self-interest in broader way. They’re really our allies. Our competitor is the TV set. We’ve got to work together to get people off the couch and out to enjoy life.”

That attitude helped revitalize what’s now known as LoDo – for Lower Downtown – and Hickenlooper brought it to the mayor’s office. One of the first things he did was throw a party in his loft for every regional county commissioner and their spouses. “I gave a two-minute speech: ‘The history of divisiveness, and us trying to get benefit at your expense, is over. And from now on, the City of Denver will do everything we can to help the suburbs,” he recalled. “I got a huge round of applause. There was this tremendous hunger there.”

Similarly, he reached out to the Republican governor, who’d had epic battles with Hickenlooper’s Democratic predecessor, Wellington Webb. “On my first day in office I walked across the green. I spent about an hour and a half with him, and I said, ‘I guarantee you I will never embarrass you for political gain. We agree on about 90 percent of the stuff. It’s crazy for us to get in fights over these other things."

Why reach out? Because just as a successful brewpub needed a successful LoDo, a successful Denver needs a successful Colorado. “Denver doesn’t compete anymore with Seattle or San Diego,” he said. “We’re competing with metropolitan Shanghai. And metropolitan Bombay. If we don’t begin working together at a much higher level, we’ll find that not just our grandchildren’s jobs but our children’s jobs will have gone away.”

Lesson Four: Never Stop Building Your Team

Don’t ever expect to see Hickenlooper pat himself on the back. As he talks about Denver’s successes, he credits his partners, his predecessors, his employees, his advisers, his wife, his parents – everyone but himself. This is no accident. It’s part of his strategy of keeping his team together.

Restaurants depend on a team of diverse people with many backgrounds and skill sets, all of whom have particular needs if they are to get their jobs done. Cities depend on the same thing. When he came into office, Hickenlooper made sure that he brought in a staff of appointees who were not only highly qualified, but diverse and representative, with connections to all parts of the city’s social and political culture. He appointed one of his competitors for mayor as a leader in his transition. He established transition teams that could reach far beyond his personal circle to find qualified candidates for appointment. He made a highly visible effort to put a team in place that Denver’s citizens could trust.

And he never stops building up his teammates, listening to their needs in private, and praising them in public whenever he can. He praises the city employees who helped him trim Denver’s budget. He praises the suburban officials who helped make transit reform a reality. He happily declined to put his picture up in the Denver airport, substituting pictures that celebrate regional landmarks.

“Symbolic stuff really matters,” he said. “You end up coming out better in the end. By taking your own picture down, it’s as if you had a bigger picture up there.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sound County Policy On Free Lots Remains Homeless

Simply put, there is no basis for the Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ approving county government’s gift of 140 lots to Buehler Homes.

It is simply wrong on so many levels. Politically, it’s essentially the majority invoking their will on a district whose direct representative to Shelby County Board of Commissioners opposes the transfer. More to the point, that commissioner, Henri Brooks, is convincing in her concerns and compelling in her objections.

And yet, the county commissioners ignore the elected leader from North Memphis and instead take a wild gamble that these homes will not become anathema to neighborhood revitalization like so many that have gone before.

Responding to Real Plans

In the end, the biggest problem that we have with the decision of the board of commissioners is that they made it in a vacuum. We find it hard to imagine a scenario in which county government would give away 140 lots in Cordova or Midtown or University District without at least finding out about plans for those neighborhoods and without specific and detailed official public input.

After all, it’s not Shelby County Government that will deliver services or will be in charge of neighborhood revitalization efforts in the area where the new Buehler Homes are located. That’s City of Memphis. So far, we haven’t heard even a whisper of a question about how this fits into any ongoing programs funded and directed by the primary government for this area – city government.

And the commissioners’ complicity in undermining urban neighborhoods is deepened by their failure to advocate for development of the comprehensive plan for Memphis and Shelby County that is way overdue. Without a clear plan of what you are trying to achieve, a sense of what is needed and a master plan of what should be done, our community is seduced into a hodgepodge of ideas and projects.

The Real Problem

The greatest indictment of the Buehler gift is that it is next to impossible to find a professional planner or architect in the entire city who says it is a good idea. To the contrary, they point to it as the symbol of what’s wrong with decision-making about the future of neighborhoods and about the emphasis of good design overall in Memphis.

At the board of commissioners, there was of course the normal rhetoric about answering the housing demands of our neighborhoods. They need to drive into some of them. Right now, about 20% of all Memphis houses are vacant, and that number has more than doubled since 2000. Or put another way, there are now about 53,000 vacant houses in Memphis and they are inarguably seen as cancers on their neighborhoods.

We’re certain that Shelby County Government has seized many of them for non-payment of taxes, and it would seem that the vacant houses, not the vacant lots, that should get priority. We’d support Buehler getting some of them if the company would renovate them and make them presentable and habitable. Our neighborhoods have serious needs, and there is none more pressing than dealing with the vacant housing that can quickly deteriorate and become hang-outs for exactly the kind of people the neighborhoods don’t want.

Better Ideas

Meanwhile, Sustainable Shelby talks a lot about urban gardening and farming. Perhaps, county government should walk the talk and use the lots for an innovative program for inner city residents to grow crops and set up co-ops. Who knows? Different kind of thinking could get a different answer, one that could even have national implications.

As the saying goes, if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. As long as county government thinks that it’s objective is to get rid of lots no matter what, it’s destined to make short-sighted decisions. Everything in a city is connected, and unless you look at an issue within the larger frame, you really haven’t looked at it at all.

Shelby County Government is in the prime negotiating position, so why not leverage Buehler Homes’ work inside Memphis to improve neighborhood character with renovated existing housing? If he can improve those county-owned vacant homes, we’re all for giving them to him and waiving taxes for five years, because at least in that way, he’s fulfilling a serious civic priority and neighborhood need.

It’s Policy, Stupid

Buehler Homes is not a social services agency. His business model makes him money and more power to him for that. But if his business model is to include the gift of public property, his product should respond directly to a serious public need and an official neighborhood revitalization plan.

In our form of government, the legislative branch sets policies that the executive branch carries out. Unfortunately, the vote on Beuhler Homes was about everything but sound public policy. It was treated as a political transaction. It was treated as a public relations exercise.

But it all obscures the truth. The board of commissioner’s decision on the 140 lots was anything but good policy. Usually, good policy is made in context and with an assessment of all available resources. In this instant, that context would have been a full understanding of neighborhood revitalization plans of City of Memphis and other relevant entities. It would also involve an inventory of resources and services as well as identifying the pressing needs of the area.

A Modest Proposal

Rather than do any of that, the board of commissioners has effectively plopped down houses all over North Memphis with no regard for any existing plans and without any response to a well-crafted strategic plan of action. It’s haphazard and it’s not strategic for neighborhoods whose futures have always gotten short shrift and given long odds.

It would seem prudent and logical that before Shelby County Government gives away any more lots inside the city limits of Memphis, it would adopt two overriding policies:

One, no county-owned property will be given to any person or any company that owes delinquent property taxes (Buehler Homes’ bill is just south of $1 million).

Two, no county-owned property will be given to any person or any company without consultation with City of Memphis to determine if the county’s action is consistent with programs that are under way.

Most of all, we hope that future decisions like this won’t be treated as if they’re about a political end game rather than about reaching the wisest possible public policy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Brown-outs Short Circuit Civility And Logic

Here’s our advice to Memphis Councilman Shea Flinn:

When confronted with the rantings of Councilman Joe Brown, just say: Councilman, I simply refuse to go into mental combat with an unarmed man.

Those are the immortal words used by former City Councilman Fred Davis to a colleague decades ago when his colleague’s argument crossed the boundaries of simple logic and good manners.

We needed Mr. Davis at Council today, because if ever there was a time when it was clear that Councilman Flinn’s adversary was completely unarmed, it was at today’s meeting.


And even his fellow Council members, who’ve heard any awful lot of circular reasoning and race-baiting from Councilman Brown, were shaking their heads over his flight at warp speed into a parallel universe. One wag has taken to calling such moments “Brown-outs,” or short circuits that shut down the system.

To punctuate his outrage over the Council’s consideration of Memphian Steve Ross as a member of the Memphis and Shelby County Metropolitan Government Charter Commission, Councilman Brown shouted at Mr. Flinn: “I'm a real black man. I hope you're a real white man."

It’s enough to discourage us from thinking that Memphis Mayor-elect A C Wharton even has a chance to spread his gospel of “One Memphis” to the Brown apostolate of division and scarcity mentality.

Scarcity Thinking

In the Joe Brown worldview, there’s only one way to see the world: If you’re winning, I must be losing. In that worldview, there’s only one thing to do: to pull you down to my level of dysfunction and mediocrity.

The first casualty of this approach is the fundamental civility and candid, calm debate that is the essential grease for sound public decision-making. And yet, the greater casualty is the public involvement that is the essence of our system of government.

Yesterday’s outburst against Mr. Ross sent the unmistakable and clear message – the one Councilman Brown undoubtedly wanted to send – that all people really aren’t welcome in public discourse.

Defining Diversity

When Mr. Brown talks about the importance of diversity, he clearly doesn’t mean diversity of opinions. To the contrary, nominees to any city board or commission who express a different point of view do so at their peril. Councilman Brown’s regular canings of good people suggests that he’d be just as comfortable as a criminal judge in Singapore as a public servant in the U.S.

There was the former City Council member, a solid advocate for civil rights, who was called a racist by Councilman Brown. There was the citizen who was told he was stupid. There was the staff member berated and vilified. Then, there was yesterday’s question about whether Councilman Flinn is a “real white man,” whatever that means.

Steve Ross needs no defense from us, particularly since he proves on his blog just how much he loves this crazy place and how much he has to offer in knowledge and insight for the charter commission. There is little argument that he is progressive and open and a fighter against fear and doubt, just what a charter commission members needs. He is also a firm proponent of the Thomas Jefferson advice: “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”

Opening Up The System

While most of us lament the recycling of the usual suspects time after time on public boards, there’s little wonder that people aren’t beating down the front door of City Hall to volunteer. For most young professionals in particular, there’s just no reason to get into such a hostile sphere, and God knows, there is precious little mentoring taking place from the elected officials now in office, especially the old guard like Councilman Brown.

With little voice in public affairs and even less traction on political decisions, it should be no surprise that so many people simply decide that it’s just too hard to do good deeds in Memphis. Sadly, it also reinforces a common Memphis narrative: we are stuck in time where political patronage and paybacks are the ways we do business and newcomers need not apply. It is a damning narrative, because it creates low expectations here and serves as encouragement to move somewhere else.

It’s a shame, because there is no lack of impressive young talent in our city. If you doubt it, check out the FedEx world headquarters cafeteria at lunch some time. There are talented managers of every race, of every ethnicity and of both genders in abundance, and they are seen nowhere in the public life of our city.

New Blood

It’s just too hostile, and there’s just too little reward for the bruising welcome that normally awaits new faces in the public sphere. If we were in charge, we’d immediately enact a policy that 75% of all appointees to boards and commissioners have never served before.

We’d also require that either the director or deputy director in every city division is filled with a young professional. It may sound drastic, but we have to do something to inject new energy, imbed new ideas and import new experiences that can inspire new solutions. In addition, we need to begin succession planning, training more and more people with courage and creativity to move up and transform the City Hall culture.

But first, citizens who are willing to step up and serve city government have every right to expect common courtesy from City Council. It’s the least all Council members can do for the people who pay their salaries in the first place.

Sadly, all this bad behavior was rewarded when Mayor Wharton and Memphis Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery pulled Mr. Ross's nomination. It was just another day in City Hall.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Landslide Grounds New Political Landscape

Memphis needed a mandate.

Yes, Mayor-elect A C Wharton got it, but it was the city that needed it.

We’ve been limping along for eight years or so with no sense that we had anyone in charge, someone with a compelling vision and the public credibility and ability to lead us out of the wilderness, someone who can cast off the civic lethargy that has gripped up for too long.

While Mayor Wharton doesn’t need to play Moses to our wandering tribe, he will have to play Obama for a city demanding change in short order. There is so much that has to be done now and there’s no chance of his doing them one at a time. He has no choice but for daily multi-tasking that will be the theme for the next two years and a skill every one of his directors will have to cultivate.

Waiting For A Great Mayor

That’s why Memphis badly needed a mandate.

Our city needs a reason to shift from despairing about things to becoming hopeful about the future. Our city needs someone who can summon up all of the resources in the public and private sectors to focus on the game changers that can transform our city’s trajectory. Our city needs momentum and nothing can jump start it more than a leader with the overwhelmingly broad-based support that gives him a unique opportunity to make long strides in a short period of time.

In other words, Memphis desperately needs a leader, a city mayor whose landslide gives him a special stature that means he can take charge of his bully pulpit with a no bull attitude. Memphis needs a city mayor who can ask for help from local business leaders and social entrepreneurs with the confidence that they will step forward.

In other words, it’s all about the kind of clout, authority and standing that gives a mayor the chance to be a transformative leader like Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.

Memphis has had some good mayors, but we’ve never had a great one. Eighteen years Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton had his chance but in the end, it all unraveled as his behavior grew more erratic and his leadership more divisive.

Failing Grades

As a result, Memphis has languished for eight years and it shows. While Nero fiddled, Memphis was burning and its worrisome trends not only continued but they quickened.

Today, about 35% of Memphis workers are either unemployed or have not looked for a job in so long that they are no longer included in the unemployment rate. The number of people living in poverty in Memphis is equivalent to the population of Chattanooga, and the poverty rate in Memphis has risen 27.2% since 2000, and the poverty rate for adolescents has climbed 45%.

Memphis is losing an average of three middle-income families a day and five people a day with college degrees. Inside the 1970 city limits of Memphis, population is down 28% and density is cut in half, making public services more costly and meaning that public facilities are often located in the wrong places.

We’ve said it before and we say it again: Memphis has no margin for error.

To put it even more directly, we do not have five years to float unfocused and uninspired. We have to make strides. We have to do an awful lot of things right. But first, it requires Mayor Wharton to restore confidence for a government that most people believe is a central part of the problem.

THE Question

Ultimately, that’s why the most pressing question facing Mayor Wharton is this: where do I best invest the power of this mandate for the greatest change?

With so many clear needs, there are almost as many answers for what he needs to do first as there are activists. But on one thing, there is no confusion, and Mayor Wharton knows it. If the trend lines for Memphis do not change, our future is sealed and it won’t be pretty.

Mandates are magic. They breathe life into the system. They inject dynamism into the body politic. They arrest the kind of political grandstanding and sniping that come with lesser victories. They act to amass new resources and renewed energy behind a leader who can leverage them to change things.

While President Obama was right when he said we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for, it’s hard to find a city that’s making important progress that also doesn’t have a strong mayor with a bold agenda propelled by a clear mandate for something new and different. Like the president, Mayor Wharton’s task will be to lower expectations, always a necessity for anyone in politics, while juggling multiple political hot potatoes and producing evidence that change is taking place.

Killing The Status Quo

Here’s the harsh reality of politics: most winning elected officials are never more popular than they are on election night, so before the honeymoon subsides, Mayor Wharton has to make the most of it.

The best news for him is that the people said emphatically that they are willing to follow him, and by inference, that others who oppose him do so at their peril. With slightly more than 60 percent of the vote and an approval rating more than one-third higher, odds are that he can bring the executive and legislative branches back into balance in City Hall.

Over the years, Memphis City Council had no choice but to fill the void left by a disengaged Mayor Herenton and it has shown courage on more than one occasion while the mayor sat mute in his seventh floor office. But city government cannot operate on less than all of its cylinders, and the wear and tear of an administration that was rudderless and adrift has taken a terrible toll.

That is likely to be Mayor Wharton’s opening salvo – to send the forceful message that if people are defenders of the status quo and of the same old ways of doing things, they are in the wrong line of work. Also, we suspect he will send the message that the days of independent fiefdoms, turf warfare and directors freelancing – such as hiring fellow church members and making appointments without mayoral approvals – are over.

The Right Theme

He’s already made it clear that a top priority for him is to change the culture of city government. There is almost no goal that he can set that is more important or harder to accomplish. But it is without question the right one to have.

In fact, if all of the 34 planks of his platform were stripped down to the thread that held them all together, it was a theme of culture change.

For a large percentage of Memphians, City Hall has come to symbolize all that is wrong with their city – dysfunctional, lacking vision and no clear plans for progress – and it exhibits the attitudes that penalize our city’s progress – racial division, decisions based on who you know rather than what you know, territoriality and lack of alignment of our energy and our goals.

As the mayor of county government, Mayor Wharton no doubt often felt like a prisoner in the weak mayor form of government that Shelby County has. In that government, he really controlled about 25% of the county budget and employees, and like all county mayors, his visibility was based on his willingness to elbow his way into the spotlight and create his own events to get attention.


There’s no mistaking that we can name the head of county government mayor and he can have as many employees and a budget as big as Memphis’, but in the end, it’s the city mayor who gets the headlines, the regular media coverage, the most public attention and has the largest megaphone.

That’s why the world as he has known it will change for Mayor Wharton when he takes the helm of city government. The Memphis mayor heads up a strong mayor form of government. He can change the goals and the direction of 6,000 employees with the issuance of a memo. He has the preeminent position of leadership in the city, he speaks with a voice that is amplified and dissected by the news media, and while his actions are analyzed and criticized by the talking heads, but no one has more control over the Memphis destiny.

There are the critics – subdued somewhat by the landslide on election night – who continue to believe that Mayor Wharton cannot succeed: he is not tough enough, he is not decisive enough or he is not willing to take the risks needed to effectuate change. He’s heard the criticisms before of course, and early on, he seems to be sending the modulated message that when stripped down says, “just watch me.”

And every one will be, particularly during his honeymoon period. The length of the grace period for new mayors is never preordained, and as a county mayor shifting to become city mayor, it’s possible that his will be shorter rather than longer, because the public does not expect there to be a learning curve for him.

Building Political Capital

There’s nothing like getting 61% of the vote to give you the currency you need to extend your honeymoon. And that message was not lost on City Council members up for reelection at the same time that Mayor Wharton runs for a full four-year term in 2011. If they are defined then as impediments to the mayor’s agenda, it could prove to be a high-risk venture.

Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery – who had done an admirable job as mayor pro tem - made the point on election night. He said the Wharton campaign had more money and a much better campaign organization. The possibility that those same weapons could be turned on critics or obstructionists is a sobering thought already whispered between a few Council members.

So, in the end, what should Mayor Wharton invest his popularity and support to accomplish? Here’s what we think his vision should be: to create a “no excuses” government known for its innovative programs, for its development of change agents, and for making the strategic investments that create, retain and attract talent.
Of course, underneath such a vision are an array of programs that have to be accomplished – from better parks and libraries to institutionalizing an office charged with developing talent; from streamlining city government by reducing the number of divisions and managers by one-third and the workforce by 15% to getting serious about creating a real digital government; from functional consolidation plans that never seem to find a successful end (such as fire and engineering) to looking for ways to add others like information technology (Memphis spends $20 million a year and Shelby County spends $11 million); from scaling back tax freezes to equalizing tax policy; and those are just a few.

No Rest For The Weary

There are pressing issues commanding attention after years of neglect, and many of them are about getting the basics right. After all, the public aren’t normally a demanding group. They just want government to get a few things right - safety, cleanliness, efficiency, responsiveness and a dollar’s worth of value for every dollar in taxes.

In addition, there are threatening issues on the horizon, chiefly the city government budget process that begins in only a couple of months. It would have been tough enough in normal times, but add in the school funding issue and it becomes an immediate test that could be a defining moment for the Wharton Administration.

Getting through that successfully could be the best honeymoon present of all.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Shrinking Detroit and Exploding Mumbai

Detroit is in the news again with Time Magazine launching a bureau of sorts from the city. But to get a real local's perspective, we'll talk with Katy Locker and David Egner of the Hudson Webber Foundation. It provides grants to improve the quality of life of the metropolitan Detroit community, and Katy and Dave will tell us about some of the amazing work they're doing to revitalize the city of Detroit.

On the other side of the globe, Mumbai is a city with an exploding population and a housing crisis that is leaving 9 million people without a home. Prathima Manohar is the founder and Editor in Chief of a blog called "The Urban Vision" that highlights the best practices from around the world and how they can be put to use in cities.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Skate Park: Why We All Should Care

If you ever wonder why so many of us are passionate about the proposed Mud Island skate park, you can get a sense of it with this video.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lessons From A "Special" Election

It was in the late Sixties when our dorm walls bore a poster: “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.”

In those heady days of political activism, it was hard to imagine that the poster today should say: “Suppose they held an election and nobody came.”

Voter turnout numbers in Memphis have been tumbling for years, and even though special elections traditionally attract lower turnout, it’s hard to synchronize the pent-up call for change with the voter apathy seen in today’s election for Memphis mayor.

The total votes cast today just barely exceeded 100,000, compared to 165,397 votes cast in a turnout hailed as lackluster in the 2007 city mayor’s race.

Too Nice To Criticize

Perhaps, it was the inevitability of the victory by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton as the new city mayor. In the end, no opponent could ever lay a glove on him, and while criticizing him as too nice to be mayor, the other candidates never came to grips with the reality that voters didn’t want to see such a nice person attacked.

It seemed lost on them that once you set him up as the nice guy in the race, it’s really hard to then jump on him without looking like a heavy. That’s why Carol Chumney’s apparent desperation in the election eve debate merely came off as shrill, just as Charles Carpenter’s earlier shots merely sounded snarky.

Voters simply brushed aside criticisms of an elected official with the highest approval ratings of any politician in the modern political history of Memphis.

Meanwhile, if there’s anybody who gained from the election – and it’s hard to see how any one really did – it’s probably Myron Lowery, who in the next 7 to 10 days will revert back to his post as chairman of a Memphis City Council divided down the middle in their opinions about him.

Down And Out

Despite that, the tone of the Lowery campaign and his determination to make the most of his few months as mayor pro tem gained him a measure of respect (at least among Caucasian voters). Among African-American voters, he could never recover from the damage done as the deciding vote with the white Council members on several controversial issues and the neverending saga of City Attorney Elbert Jefferson that dogged his time in the mayor’s office.

Meanwhile, Mr. Carpenter’s campaign began with high hopes. Some pundits even suggested that although his campaign might be a long-shot, he would prove to be a strong candidate and position himself strongly for next year’s county mayor’s election. Any dreams of future office evaporated with his failure to get into double digits – or more than half way to double digits.

The election also put a period on the political career of Ms. Chumney, former Council member and state legislator. It seemed impossible during the campaign for her to find her stride and her repeated, clumsy attempts to cast herself as a victim of a glass ceiling for women politicians never gained traction with even a significant percentage of women voters. Just two years ago, she received 57,196 votes for city mayor. Today, she got slightly more than 10,000.

School board member Kenneth Whalum was reminded of another sad fact of life about Memphis politics. You can excite the youth vote, but you just can’t get them out to the polls, and as a result, his 2% of the total vote was much less than the 5% he had polled only four days before the election.

Residual Effects

If there should have been anyone as happy as the Wharton family, it should have been Shelby County Board of Commissioners Chair Deidre Malone and former state legislator Harold Byrd, who have announced their intentions to run for county mayor next year.

It was widely thought by some news reporters that this election would presage next year’s county election by positioning several candidates strongly for that race. Not so. If anything, the election doomed any serious attempt by any candidate to claim they have the kind of base on which to build a countywide campaign.

Another thing proven by the election is that the impact of controversial blogger Thaddeus Matthews is far more perception than reality. Despite relentless and careless fictions about anyone connected to Mayor Wharton, the Carpenter candidacy, if anything, sunk beneath the weight of his cheerleading.

It reinforced the lesson that some were slow to learn in last year’s campaign against Congressman Steve Cohen. Voters are slow to mobilize around smear campaigns and reckless slanders. The Carpenter campaign proved this again in conclusive fashion. Meanwhile, we are told that a Federal Communications Commission complaint is being drawn up against Mr. Matthews and his radio home, KWAM.

New Day

All in all, it was a “take no prisoners” display by Mayor Wharton, who proved conclusive that even a nice guy can put together one mean campaign. It may be too soon for such predictions, but it’s hard to argue with the view that Mayor Wharton is now the dominant political force and if he invests his honeymoon period well, he has the power to change the entire political landscape in Memphis, particularly its tone and civility, for the better.

He is the antithesis of Mayor Herenton, whose stated disdain for consensus-building makes him a strange person to send to Congress and its 435 members. There is no issue that Mayor Wharton does not believe that he can find consensus and common ground. That will unquestionably be put to the test in City Hall.

For us, however, what interests us most is that he’s positioned himself as the political powerhouse who can achieve his goal of ushering in a new generation of young political leaders and public servants.

In his last race for Memphis mayor, Willie Herenton said he had no choice but run because he had neglected to mentor a successor. While it’s hard to imagine Mayor Wharton suggesting that he should pick who will be the next city mayor, he is clearly sincere about the need to attract young people into key positions in City Hall.

Changing Expectations

If this election was about anything, it was about change.

While Mayor Wharton may have tallied 61%, 100% of the vote was for something different. With 25 candidates in the race, no one stood four square in support of Mayor Herenton. No one defended his record, his philosophy or his approach to his work.

Perhaps, that’s to be expected after 18 years of the same person as city mayor, but it was also a residual effect of the historic election of Barack Obama as president. Suddenly, all things seemed possible, even the once unthinkable – One Memphis.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Local Government As Performance Art

Caught in a brutal vise of too much poverty, shrinking density and a broken tax structure, the next person to head up City of Memphis Government may need to be an alchemist, not just a mayor.

There are so many troubling trends taking place in Memphis, and they converge by necessity in the budget hearings of city government. Because of it, the acrimony and conflict of this year’s budget hearings are destined to become an annual event if nothing is done to dramatically change the key forces shaping our city’s future.

There’s the 20% bulge in children in Shelby County when compared to Nashville/Davidson County and its peer communities. It’s a regional anomaly, and when converted into public costs, it amounts to roughly $180 million a year. In other words, if we had the same percentage of students as Nashville, we’d be spending $180 million a year less in education alone (not including the costs of services to poor, at-risk kids).

Not Dense Enough

Meanwhile, the costs of delivering public services are going up because of the decreasing density of Memphis neighborhoods. Density fell 21% percent from 2000-2005, accelerating a trend that began four decades ago. When compared to 35 peer cities, Memphis is #5 in the greatest decline in density.

Today, there are 28% fewer people inside the 1970 city limits of Memphis as there were back then, and density is half what it was. While density is a key indicator of neighborhoods that work, it matters to taxpayers most of all. Public services are less expensive when they are serving high-density areas, and capital costs are almost 50 percent cheaper than low-density sprawl.

That’s why the strongest champions for high-density should be our local elected officials, using their bully pulpits to correct public misperceptions that higher density means lower property values; to persuade financial institutions not yet comfortable with funding urban-oriented construction; and to reinvent the local development standards that often discourage higher densities.

Upside Down Tax Policy

Finally, as a result of too many kids and too little density, we are paying the highest combined city-county tax rate in Tennessee. In the words of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations: "Memphis has the highest combined county and city nominal tax rate in the state…Total local taxes are regressive, since each of the three taxes (property tax, sales tax and wheel tax) is separately regressive. Regressivity refers to lower income persons paying a higher percent of their income for taxes than do higher income persons."

Put another way, not only are our taxes too high but the poorer you are, the greater percentage of your income is spent on them.

Because of these facts, contrary to conventional wisdom and despite relatively effective financial management, our tax rate is destined to remain high and the trends combine to push it higher. For example, if we had the same percentage of student-age population as most major metros, our tax rate here would essentially be the same as the tax rate in Nashville, a city we regularly reject and covet simultaneously.

Getting Real About Change

The fact that a contrary public opinion is widely held is testament to the purposeful way that local government obscures information from the public. For example, we may well have entered a world of Web 2.0, but local government seems incapable of creating a digital environment that would have measured up to Web 1.0. It’s understandable that many people have concluded that the government websites here aren’t accidentally cumbersome and unhelpful, but they are a direct reflection of the prevailing government attitude of obfuscation.

If we were the next city mayor, rather than hire the usual corporations that would charge more than $500,000 to reinvent the city website, we’d give five local, innovation website developers $20,000 a piece and challenge them to define what a public website should look like in the 21st century. More to the point, they should create a website that let’s the sunshine into city government and that contributes to a shift in a culture that hides public documents and treats public records requests as if we don’t have a right to know what’s going on in the government we pay for.

Here’s the thing: every transaction, application and request that the public can make standing on the other side of a government counter should also be available online. Every report, every tax freeze given by government and every study paid for by taxpayers should be posted on the Web. Every government form should be downloadable on the city website and it should get serious about engaging the public and giving them a voice.

Transparency Is Not Just Campaign Rhetoric

If there’s a model for is kind of transparency, it’s the Missouri Accountability Portal on the state government’s website. It posts detailed information on expenditures by agency, category, contract or vendor and salaries for state employees.

But there’s so much more that can be done here to save money. For example, there are mechanic shops working on publicly-owned vehicles for various agencies all over Shelby County. Even within city government, most divisions have someone assigned to handle information technology. The opportunities for merging functions that are replicated over and over again – from purchasing to maintenance to human resources – can yield more than savings. It also contributes to the sense of teamwork and collaboration that are sorely lacking in local government today.

In a nutshell, the challenge for the next mayor of Memphis is to create a high-performing government based on and focused on performance – from budgets to salaries. Today, there’s just no real connection between a department’s performance and its budget and there’s no connection between an employee’s performance and salary.

Performance Matters

We’re not saying this is about overlaying private sector models onto the public sector. As a Harvard study concluded years ago, government is too different for these simplistic notions – not to mention campaign sloganeering – about bringing business to government. (And the truth is that everyone is in favor of the government acting more businesslike until it affects them.) Despite this, the notion that performance can’t be applied to the public sector is outdated and flawed.

First and foremost, it requires for a set of outcomes to be defined and to link them seriously to budgeting, evaluation and salaries. To its credit, City of Memphis yearly conducts the Memphis Poll to understand the public’s priorities and opinions, but we’re hard-pressed to see any meaningful way that the polling results are applied to budgets or service delivery.

In the end, it’s about the kind of focus and accountability that can transform the culture of local government, because that’s really the overall objective. It’s also been called the equivalent of changing a tire on a car traveling 60 miles per hour.

No Waiting Room

To compound the challenge, a significant part of the public workforce are Civil Service employees who know that they can ordinarily wait out a person that sets out to change things, whether it is Kriner Cash, A C Wharton or the next city mayor.

We can’t afford to wait anymore, and while getting the basics of government right, it’s even more about reversing trends that exacerbate all of this in the first place. That’s the toughest challenge of all, because it requires the repopulating of Memphis, and this won’t take place until the public feels that its tax dollars are being wisely spent and are creating the kind of city in which they want to live.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Great Streets

The American Planning Association has posted its 10 great streets as part of its annual Great Places in America project.

Check out these 10 great streets, and let us know what Memphis street should be on this list. Or, give us your 10 great Memphis streets.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New Mayor Is In A Race Against Time

One of the things the new mayor needs to do is just make people believe again in good government.

That was the observation by our friend and colleague Cardell Orrin in today’s Commercial Appeal. He accurately identified the most serious problem facing City Hall – that the people whose taxes pay for it no longer believe that it can be efficient, honest and effective.

Such is the legacy of the Herenton era and such is the need for dramatic and transformative action to prove that the culture of city government can be overhauled and the trajectory of Memphis can be improved.

In an age when political campaigns are routinely marathons, the campaign for city mayor has been a sprint. But if things have been rapid so far, they promise to become absolutely frantic once the new mayor takes the oath of office.

Culture Shift

Taking office is a big task for any new mayor, but it may prove Herculean for the first new elected city mayor in 18 years. Anytime new leadership takes over after 18 years of the same CEO, there is the pressing need for financial and organization audits that result in the “top to bottom” analysis needed to shake up the status quo.

It’s no easy task. Culture eats policy for lunch, and the culture in City Hall has a voracious appetite.

As we wrote a few weeks ago, we’d begin by focusing on agents of change, setting up a system to encourage and reward innovation, and an immediate plan to make City of Memphis an e-government.

Regardless, the new mayor must act dramatically, emphatically and strategically to send a clear, unmistakable message both inside and outside City Hall that a new day is being ushered in and business as usual is simply unacceptable.

Tough Timelines

The reason we say this is a Herculean task is because the new mayor has about 18 months to show results, because that’s when the campaign for a full four-term term as city mayor will start in earnest. That’s because Thursday’s election is to name the person to complete the rest of Mayor Herenton’s term, and the next election for a four-year term for Memphis mayor is October 6, 2011.

And yet, that’s not the most pressing schedule confronting the new mayor. More to the point, that person will have no time for a smooth, methodical transition to power that has become customary here. There’s so much to do and so little time to do it.

A new Memphis mayor will take office when the Shelby County Election Commission certifies the results of the election, and that is likely to take place about a week later. In other words, the traditional transition period in which a special committee makes recommendations to the new mayor would actually undermine the sense of urgency and the momentum for change that the public is demanding.

The short time between being elected and taking office also could mean that some of the Herenton directors may remain in place for awhile as the new mayor assesses them and vets possible appointees to the key offices of city government. There are roughly 400 appointed employees, but about 150 matter, including mayoral staff, attorneys and upper management.

Getting The People Right

That said, despite the need for more time to evaluate and recruit candidates, the new mayor will have to take aim on a few key appointments that require immediate attention, including chief administrative officer, the assistant chief administrative officer, director of human resources, director of finance, police director, city engineer and city attorney.

These are appointments that set the tone for the new administration and will be seen as the bellwether for voters looking for proof of a change in direction for City Hall.

The most crucial position of course is the chief administrative officer, because this person manages the day-to-day operations of the new administration, and when the CAO speaks, the public should hear the new mayor’s voice. Useful qualifications are management and organizational knowledge, the ability to inspire and lead others, a talent for building consensus and the skill to drive the new mayor’s agenda at Memphis City Council.

That last one won’t be easy. The dysfunction of the Herenton Administration created a vacuum that has been regularly filled by the City Council. It’s been a heady time for Council members because there has been no balance of powers, and it will be a challenge for a new administration to create a more productive, collegial approach to city services (not to mention defining the line between legislative and administrative functions).

Getting The Right People

The director of human services is pivotal to creating a new culture in City Hall, because a new mayor has to have someone in this position who can develop a plan to hire innovators and change agents. If anything has been clear in recent years, it has been that the hirings by the human resources division have done little to counter the overall dysfunction of City Hall and in some direct ways, it has in fact contributed to it.

The director of finance is always crucial, because it’s not enough for a new mayor to have a change-making agenda. The new mayor must make sure the budgets are aligned to accomplish it.

Meanwhile, city engineering has rightly or wrongly become the poster child for city policies that have fueled sprawl, rewarded the asphalt lobby and have contributed to unhealthier Memphis neighborhoods. It is vital that city government puts the creation of neighborhoods of choice at the top of its priority list, and it will take a concerted effort by a cross-section of divisions to make it happen, because until it does, the absence of a coherent approach will continue to feed the idea that Buehler homes are positive additions to our neighborhoods.

As for healthy neighborhoods, the building block is safety, and it’s hard to conceive of a scenario where a change is not made in the police director’s position. In the end, it gets down to the inescapable sense that the public wants a new approach and it’s hard to find a constituency calling for things to stay the same.

Watching The Signs

Finally, there is the city attorney, and in recent months, it’s a position that’s become a lightning rod for critics of the Herenton Administration although a number of African-Americans sees embattled City Attorney Elbert Jefferson as a scapegoat for the Herenton haters.

Regardless, it’s inevitable that a new mayor will want his or her own city attorney. The job is simply too important and too influential, and despite another grand-standing foray by Attorney General Bill Gibbons, it’s little more than piling on. There’s no one betting that Mr. Jefferson remains when a new city mayor takes office.

Here’s the thing: regardless of who someone votes for Thursday, the clear message is a deep longing for change. It’s equally clear that voters will be watching closely in the next few weeks to make sure the new mayor got the message.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Member Of The James Gang Saddles Up For Memphis

We became acquainted with the James Gang in Iowa City, Iowa, when several of its members – Jesse Elliott, Gina McGee, Alex Johnson, Spencer Griffin, Elizabeth Azoff, and Michael Brooks - participated in the Memphis Manifesto Summit, which our company founder Carol Coletta conceived of and organized in 2003 with Richard Florida.

We were impressed then and remain impressed now. The grassroots group focuses on community-building by creating “endeavors” that connect creativity and service, and become the framework for individuals to pursue their own creativity.

Or put another way, it’s a nonprofit entrepreneurial center that works to start and grow community projects in arts, music, theater, humanities, technology, community activism, and business.

It’s an organization of smart, passionate people, as evidenced by its name in honor of William James, the father of American psychology, not Jesse James, the father of murderers as American myths.


The James Gang is known in Iowa City as thinkers, dreamers, activists, leaders, workers, and connectors. We need more of them so when we got the following email from one who is about to transplant to Memphis, we couldn’t help but smile:

My name is Zach Hoyt, and in less than a week I'll be a Memphian. I've been following your blog for the past year or so with great interest and thought you might be interested in the story of how an outsider came to the city.

A little about me: I'm 28 years old and have lived my entire life in Iowa, growing up in Des Moines and then moving to Iowa City to attend the University of Iowa and sticking around after graduation. I've worked since then as a real estate appraiser, first working as an independent commercial property appraiser and more recently working for Farm Credit Services of America, an agricultural lender.

I suppose I'm fairly typical of the creative class. I majored in film in college and have been an active participant in local music scenes since before I could drive. I'm also a computer geek who learned programming in high school and started an early community web site that went on to become the focus of the Des Moines underground music scene. For the past three years, I've also been heavily involved with community building efforts as part of a local nonprofit started by students and young professionals called the James Gang. I doubt you would remember, but Richard Florida actually brought a delegation of board members down for the Memphis Manifesto.


I first visited Memphis on a whim in 2006. My wife Amy and I had won free plane tickets to anywhere AirTran would fly, and being huge music fans had always wanted to visit the home of the blues. The trip was in many ways typical: Sun Records, Beal Street, Graceland, etc. But we also took time to veer from the tourist trail, exploring different neighborhoods from South Main to Hollywood to Central Gardens and as far out as Germantown.

The trip was over quick, but left a definite impact. We were back a year later on an impulse, this time seeing even more of the city. My wife and I were both laid off last year around the holidays and it really gave us a kick in the pants to evaluate what we were doing with our lives. We drove down for a weekend in Memphis to blow off some steam and that is when things were really driven home.

Before, we had loved the city. There were cool neighborhoods, great music scenes, awesome local restaurants and businesses and just a unique vibe to the place. We were already considering making the move when we went down for that last trip, but it was pushed over the edge when we went from seeing the things there to meeting the people there.

We stayed out of the tourist places and went almost entirely to neighborhood haunts. Everywhere we went, we found warm, genuine people who were happy to share their love of their city with us. They welcomed us with open arms, tried to help us find jobs and generally made us feel more welcome and at home than we ever had in Iowa.

The Plunge

So now, 10 months later, we've sold our house, quit our jobs, and are diving head first into Memphis. We came on a whim knowing almost nothing of the city, and were smitten. We came a year later and became attached. We started tuning in, following blogs and flickr streams, reading the online versions of the CA and the Flyer and becoming more and more engrained in the city.

Now we're living proof of Richard Florida's hypothesis. We aren't moving to a city for a job, we're moving to a city because we love it, and have faith that by following our hearts to Memphis, we will eventually find work in some field or another.

This came out a little longer than I had anticipated, and I apologize for that. For us however, we're basically rebooting our entire lives because of this intangible feeling for this city, and to be able to share this with someone else who obviously loves the city is exhilarating. Your blog has been inspiring and I can't wait until I can get personally involved in helping to shape the future of Memphis.