Better Government

A Mayor's Real Job

R. T. Rybak says he tried to write Pothole Confidential: My Life as Mayor of Minneapolis as a “journalist embedded at city hall.” That’s something he could legitimately pull off, since his first job was as the entire staff of a suburban Minneapolis newspaper, followed by stints as a crime reporter at the Star Tribune and publisher of an alternative weekly. The result is an intimate and, from my own perspective as a former mayor, highly authentic view from inside the maelstrom of urban governance.

From an early age, Rybak was obsessed with politics. He went to Boston College for a double major in political science and communications. But the real object of his interest was architecture and city planning, and he spent nearly all the time he was not in class immersed in those subjects. READ MORE

When Women Have Power

In 2009, Kym Worthy, the first woman ever elected as the top prosecutor for Wayne County, Mich., discovered that more than 11,000 rape kits containing victims’ DNA evidence were sitting untested in an old Detroit police storage facility. Some had been there for 35 years. More than 10,000 of the kits have since been tested, yielding hundreds of suspected serial offenders and more than two dozen convictions.

I think there’s a good chance that if the citizens of Wayne County hadn’t finally elected a woman as their top prosecutor, those rape kits would still be gathering dust. The prosecutor’s office is an instrument of power, and the fact that Worthy is a woman shaped how that power was used. READ MORE

An Older, Poorer America Is Coming

For at least one demographic group, the War on Poverty has been pretty successful. The percentage of older Americans living below the federal poverty line has decreased by two-thirds since 1966. That year, according to data from the Pew Research Center, 28.5 percent of Americans age 65 and over were poor. By 2012, that number had declined to just 9.1 percent. 

But we may be at the end of that happy trendline. I think that over the next five to 10 years we will see a dramatic reversal in the economic fortunes of millions of our oldest residents. That has profound implications for governments at all levels. READ MORE

The Poisoning of Our Politics: Partisan Elections

When Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, Francis Barry was his chief speechwriter and director of public affairs, and he was deeply involved in Bloomberg’s various charter review efforts. Barry is clearly ticked that the political parties and the self-styled good government groups had defeated a proposal in 2003 to institute nonpartisan elections. He channeled that annoyance into a book. The Scandal of Reform uses New York City’s election laws and history of election reform as a starting point for a powerful, well-researched analysis that seems to me to refute every objection to nonpartisan elections.

That doesn’t keep the same old objections from being raised, as they were in Oregon in 2014 when voters there considered, and ultimately turned down, a proposition to create a nonpartisan open primary election system. But the tide has been turning on the issue. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York -- a Democrat and as partisan a politician as you will find -- wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in July 2014 in support of open primaries. Party-controlled primaries, he asserted, “poison the health [of our political system] and warp its natural balance.” READ MORE

Patriotism and the Power of Public Spaces

When Joseph P. Riley Jr. first ran for mayor of Charleston, S.C., in 1975, he wanted to heal racial tensions in a deeply Southern city where the Civil War began. Visiting older European cities, he found his signature strategy. He saw people of all socioeconomic classes enjoying these cities’ fine public spaces. Riley became convinced that when the public realm -- streets, squares and parks -- is built well, the bonds of citizenship are reinforced. People know that everyone owns it.

Riley, who last month concluded four decades as Charleston’s mayor, calls himself a disciple of the urbanist William Whyte, who first came to prominence as the author of The Organization Man in 1956. While working with the New York City Planning Commission, Whyte pioneered the use of direct observation to study pedestrian behavior, work that led to two influential books: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in 1980 and 1988’s City: Rediscovering the Center. That last book, which I read shortly after it came out, pulses with energy and is still as vibrant and relevant today as when it was first released. READ MORE