How to Be Mayor

What Good Mayors Do

How to Be Mayor —

A city’s mayor is its chief garbage person, pothole filler, sewer cleaner, and public safety officer. It’s a dirty job that requires pragmatism, coalition building, common sense, and leadership. If you were to ask Benjamin Barber about what traits all successful mayors share, I suspect he would cite the four common traits he wrote about in his 2013 book, If Mayors Ruled the World, which are as follows: “[1] A strong personality marked by both hubris and humor. [2] A pragmatic approach to governing. [3] Personal engagement in city affairs. [and 4] Commitment to the city as a unique entity and a possible and even likely career terminus.”

To Barber’s list of traits I have added a few foundational elements to be a successful mayor, because as Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia, put it:

You either fill potholes, or don’t. The pool is open, or it isn’t, someone responded to a 911 call or they didn’t.

from If Mayors Ruled the World


Read a Few Books about Cities

If you’re running for mayor (or if you are mayor), and cities don’t fascinate you, then you’re in the wrong business (this goes for city council people, too). Don’t be just another ego that runs for mayor (or city council) simply because you think you’d be good at it. Funny thing about running a city – to be effective, you actually have to bring some real expertise about city building to the table. But, worry not. In addition to The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jane Jacobs, 1961), here’s another five books that will help you fake it to make it:

  • Tactical Urbanism (Mike Lyden & Anthony Garcia, 2015)
  • Urban Acupuncture (Jaime Lerner, 2014)
  • If Mayors Ruled the World (Benjamin Barber, 2013)
  • Getting to Smart Growth (ICMA, 2002)
  • Great Streets (Allan Jacobs, 1993)


Maintain Arm’s Length Relationships with the Local Business Elite, Developers, and Unions

Don’t get too cozy.  You have to make business deals with these people. The business elite will be looking for favors and for you to help preserve their status atop the local economy. Oftentimes, however, change does not coincide with their best interests but does coincide with the best interest of the city as a whole. When such an occasion arises, you have to choose sides.

Additionally, as mayor, you’re the largest landlord in the city. Like you, developers are also city builders. You need them, but you need them build a 21st-century city, not a city from the 1950s.

Finally, it doesn’t matter who supports who during the campaign, when you become mayor, if you don’t establish a respectful relationship with your local unions – civil service, police, fire – then you will spend more time battling them than actually doing your job. If you wish to get anything done, you need to strike a balance. At the same time, you must also negotiate contracts that don’t simply reinforce entrenched bureaucrats.


Count to Four

You’re the city’s chief garbage man not the chief approval (legislative) authority. To realize meaningful change, you need four best friends on city council for any given issue. There’s room for disagreement but you have no room to alienate any one of them, because any given four can give you a victory at any time.


Attend City Council Meetings

If an agenda is posted and someone is in the room taking minutes, you need to be at the meeting. Actively engage and participate in all public meetings of city council, including committees. Not only will you be engaged with the business of making your city better, you’ll also get your name in the paper more so than attending staged ribbon cuttings and photo-ops.


Be Creative

Because for whatever challenge that requires a solution, it’s nothing a little creativity can’t solve.


Read the Land Use and Zoning Code

This is the code that shapes your city. Read it thoroughly at least once. Better yet, become the expert, and then YOU will be the one shaping your city.


Lead the Annual Budget Creation Process

Alongside your zoning code, the annual budget is among the most important documents a municipality produces. Engage and influence the budget creation and approval process every step of the way.


Close Your Office Door Every Day and Actually Work

Committee meetings and speeches and chamber of commerce lunches are great and all but, at some point, you need a little quality time in your office. Block-off a couple hours every day for just you and your computer. Write those memos, catch up on your emails, return phone calls, read and contribute to the creation of draft ordinances, read all those year-to-date budgets, skim through one of the dozens of draft studies and plans that are sitting on your desk; heck, maybe even build a spreadsheet or two. The point is two-fold: (1) make no small effort to understand the business of your city, and (2) the business of your city will quickly slip through your fingers if you don’t take the time to understand it.


Hire Experts, Not Figureheads

As mayor you get to hand-pick your cabinet – one of the sweeter fruits that comes with the position. In Spokane, one of Mayor Condon’s biggest blunders was naming the director of the local chapter of the Better Business Bureau to run his planning and economic development division. As a result, Jan Quintrall rode into city hall on a glistening white stallion of city-building ignorance. But that’s less on Jan and more on Mayor Condon. Jan is who you call if you get a strange email from a Nigerian prince; she is not who you call if you wish to build a $135m hotel in downtown Spokane, just to cite one example. Appropriately, she “resigned” a couple years later. Thus, hiring the local BBB executive may have made for good “customer service” optics but, in the end, Jan’s lack of city-building expertise haunts Mayor Condon to this day. Hire experts, not figureheads.


Be Pragmatic

You’re not going to get anything done alone. Keeping people safe, filling their potholes, and taking out their trash requires compromise, common sense, and coalition building, not zealotry.


Lead with Integrity

This suggestion could also be titled “Avoid Scandals;” however, if you lead with integrity, you won’t have to worry about scandals.