Former Mayors Reflect on City Governance

12.3.2013 | This “Emerging Issues” column by BRR member Bill Barnes first appeared in the PA Times, a publication of the American Society of Public AdministrationBack issues of the Emerging Issues column are available online.

Five books by former mayors, randomly accumulated at my desk. Five different perspectives on cities, lots of good stories, and some themes about governing, especially what it’s like to do it.

Thomas Volgy, a former mayor of Tucson AR, urges citizens to increase their understanding — what he calls “empathy” — for what city officials actually do. Another former mayor, John Buechner of Boulder CO, advocates that city officials increase their understanding of what municipal government looks like from the “outside in.”

Joseph Freeman, of Lynchburg VA, expands on the outside/in framework — “the expertise of government and politics…. has to remain aware of its own limits, to recognize the embracing context…that establishes the meaning of an activity and that is its chief defense against becoming a self-absorbed activity.”

These three recommendations comprise a plea for citizens and public officials to “get outside the box” of their roles. Buechner wryly observes, however, that, for people to think outside “the box,” they must be able to “accurately describe what box they are currently in.” Not an easy or comfortable task.

Some readers — especially those who tend to think in terms that they might call “hard-nosed” or “realistic” — may dismiss these concerns. But these are crucial to what President Obama recently called the “hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”

Governing ourselves is not only about service delivery, budgets, and conflicting interests; it’s also about the experience of making decisions and taking actions that shape the city. That experience the city; lacking it, the place is just a service delivery area.

In 1996, Tempe AR, for example, became the then “largest city in the United States with an openly gay mayor,” Neil Guiliano. Guiliano details his private struggle to come to terms with his “difference” and his community’s public struggle to determine whether and how that difference might matter for Tempe. He defeated a recall and was re-elected several more times. The community’s process of realizing a larger sense of itself than it had perhaps known left Tempe a better place, a memory that can symbolize and shape the city’s sense of its possibilities.

Freeman makes much of the functions of “memory” and “symbol” in governance. “There’s no thinking forward without thinking back at the same time.” Stories matter and they can acquire larger meanings.

“Did you see the firemen?” was such a story. In Freeman’s city as in many others, the police and fire services carry on an old and fierce rivalry. A thunderstorm poured down on the funeral for “H”, a retired policeman and then city councilmember. Police “of course” played the major parts in the ceremonies. The cortege proceeded slowly through the chilly torrents “until we passed Firehouse Number Three and then there they were, the uniformed firemen, standing at attention in the rain.”

For Daniel Kemmis, of Missoula, MT, a key story is the “shift that occurred on the gym floor” when citizens gathered to complain to him and to argue unpleasantly with each other in front of him about a local issue, to little avail. Gently, he moved to the question of how the community could work to resolve the issue and citizens began to own the problem; there was then “a shift from an adversarial to a problem-solving stance” that led to some outcomes that likely left everyone a bit unhappy but also pleased to have been part of the communal decision-making.

Volgy focuses on “what the public does to its politicians.” His chapters explore his local experiences to elaborate “a common theme of contrasting the perception of governance with the realities of governing.”

Volgy, Freeman, and Buechner suggest that more research is warranted to understand better “what governing can mean to those who do it,” studies that are not memoirs, not about “objective” things, but rather more about what it’s like to do governance.

If “governing” includes everyone who participates, then these sorts of studies would be relevant to everyone — elected officials, administrators and citizens.  Such knowledge could lead us to better understandings of the enlarging effects of governance on those who engage.

Kemmis is particularly good at illuminating this point. He notes, for example, that the “hopelessly confused term ‘private citizen’ [is] the civic equivalent of ‘dry water’.”  Citizenship is the community aspect of our selves: our communities and we each are diminished when it is too much neglected.

The reflections of these former mayors suggest that “governing” includes everyone who shows up. Freeman reminds us that “governing is an activity, not a belief. If it is not done one way, it will be done another.” It must be constantly learned anew and practiced with an imaginative spirit as well as a hardened nose.

Bill Barnes recently retired from the National League of Cities.

Readers may want to look further at one or more of the books mentioned. Here are the full titles:

John C. Buechner, Who’s Running This Town, Anyway? 2008

Joseph E. Freeman, Government is Good: Citizenship, Participation, and Power 1992

Neil Guiliano, The Campaign Within: A Mayor’s Private Journey to Public Leadership      2012

Daniel Kemmis, The Good City and the Good Life 1995

Thomas J. Volgy, Politics in the Trenches: Citizens, Politicians, and the Fate of Democracy 2001


Photo / Jimmy Emerson

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