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.
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.
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.