Effective political management of cities doesn't occur within the confines of office walls. A good mayor must be out in the community meeting with its people if the city is to prosper and move forward into the future.
That was the message of John J. Gunther, former executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, who spoke as part of Tuesday's seventh annual Weldon J. Taylor Executive Lecture Series at Westminster College."You can manage the city - but don't try to be the administrator," said Gunther in describing the mayor's role. "Hire good administrators and then go out and meet the people. You can't do a good job as mayor sitting in the office."
Leadership is the ingredient good mayors add to city management, said Gunther. As the political leader, a good mayor must learn to delegate responsibilities and then act as the catalyst to pull together good ideas and good service.
"(The mayor) must keep in touch with the people, talk to everyone," Gunther said. "He needs to know what the people think of the city, what can be done to improve things and what can't be done."
Gunther said the mayor, to be effective, must actively interact with educators, businessmen, senior citizens, minorities and all other segments of the city population. Too often, city leaders fail to realize that they must be on top of everything that is happening in the city, whether it is a city-controlled function or the function of independent political bodies such as school boards.
"A mayor may not be able to tell them (school leaders) what to do, but a mayor cannot do a good job unless education is doing a good job with the kids," Gunther said. He cited the failure of a General Electric plant in Virginia as an example. A poor education system made it impossible for the company to keep executives at the plant and eventually it was closed.
Similar concern must be evident in all aspects of city government from redevelopment and economic development boards to water and sewer boards. "You can't ignore these people, you must not neglect them."
He said it is imperative that cities recognize their obligation to provide services through the best possible method. That can include using the private sector through privatizing or contracting out.
The key element, though, is to ensure the same competitive environment that causes private businesses to thrive. He cited Phoenix as an example. To improve trash collection, the city was divided into seven districts and each district was bid out for five-year collection contracts. The city's own public works department was included in that bidding. The first competition saw four contracts go to private firms and three to public works. Five years later that was reversed and the most recent bidding saw five of seven contracts go to the public sector.