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Comparing mayors to ground soldiers working in the trenches, mayors and former mayors from Cleveland, Baltimore, Denver, and Juneau, Alaska, shared "war stories" and lessons learned Wednesday night at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.
The panel discussion "Local Leadership in Times of Crisis," moderated by Institute of Politics' director Dan Glickman, was part of a three-day seminar for more than a dozen new mayors.
Taking the "war" analogy a step further, former Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb likened Congress to the Air Force, which works at a "higher altitude." Governors, he said, are like the Navy, which is more concerned with territorial boundaries.
Effective, local leadership, the mayors concurred, depends upon preparedness, strong communication, and the ability to cooperate across organizations. "Prepare so you know what you can do," said Fran Ulmer, former mayor of Juneau, Alaska who was involved with the clean up of the Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989. "It will empower your community."
When Cleveland lost power last August during the blackout that left much of the Northeast without electricity, Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell, who spoke via video conference, described how she provided hourly press briefings to keep citizens apprised of the city's progress in restoring service.
"I learned more about the operations of the water system and our public power system and about our private investor-owned utility system, because every hour I made them go through every detail about what they knew so I could explain it to the public."
The panelists expressed frustration with the level of federal emergency funding allotted to cities and its dispersal. Federal resources are funneled through state capitals, where funds are skimmed off before reaching the cities, said the mayors.
"We have the most fortified state capitals in the free world," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, yet "the mayors are the ones who are in command in a crisis." Mayors, he said, know where the cities' rail lines and chemical facilities are, yet the federal government is "obsessed with this notion of sending dollars only to the state capitals."
Funding levels are also inadequate, complained O'Malley. "If we're truly fighting a war on two fronts, there's no where near the assets committed by Congress to defend the homeland," he said. "What about the ports?…What about our rail yards? If the graffiti vandals can get on those chemical cars pretty readily, how much easier would it be for Al Qaeda to get on those tracks?"
At a panel discussion on Thursday morning, veteran Boston Mayor Tom Menino told his fledgling counterparts that being mayor is "the greatest job in the world since we affect peoples' lives on a daily basis." But he also warned them to take the responsibility seriously because "there's only one person accountable once you take the oath of office."
The event, sponsored by the Institute of Politics was held in conjunction with the Seminar on Transition and Leadership, a three-day training program for new city executives hosted by the Institute of Politics and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Story Photo: Doug Gavel