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Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018
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Column: Look to the mayors to lead

Many Americans are dismayed by the chaos and dysfunction in national and state politics. In this nasty and brutish political atmosphere, many believe that mayors have become the most pragmatic and innovative leaders, and productive municipal councils the most effective elected bodies.

There is a growing recognition that for most people and most businesses most of the time, local government has become the most important order of government. It is in our towns and cities that people live, work, raise their families, shop, visit local libraries and parks, enjoy recreation centers and work together to provide safer neighborhoods and produce a high quality of life.

The importance of cities has never been more apparent. The problems confronting cities have never been more serious. And the opportunities for urban success have never been more possible.

To succeed, cities need a dynamic new generation of bold thinkers. Municipal leaders, government leaders, community leaders and the public need to have passionate conversations to imagine our civic future.

For example, most cities are way behind in understanding and accessing new technologies to improve services and ensure a more efficient way of doing business in city hall. Artificial intelligence will provide enormous opportunities to develop a new era of customer service. The "internet of things" will provide detailed data to allow municipalities to both analyze and anticipate civic problems — everything from predicting stressed neighborhoods to taking proactive measures to reduce risks and provide a better environment for families.

Urban thinking is going in fantastic new directions as cities embrace this new ability to cheaply store mega-data in the cloud, coupled with technology that now delivers vast amounts of information through sensors, robots, drones and advanced analytical tools.

Two quick examples:

• LOUISVILLE, KY: More than a thousand sensor-equipped asthma inhalers were distributed. The data collected allowed the city to map poor-quality air locations — and to take action, such as planting trees along a road with very high use of inhalers.

• SINGAPORE: It has used aerial photography and drone technology to map locations for future solar panels and roof gardens. Several cities are now looking at themselves from above — which provides a new and useful tool for planning purposes.

In my new book Getting Cities Right, I interviewed four leading mayors from around the world. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was one of those. His comments were thoughtful and progressive, for example when asked about climate change. Cities are increasingly at the forefront of the climate change debate. This issue is hugely significant for Tampa Bay and Gulf Coast communities.

It is more difficult for cities when a state government is a denier, Mayor Buckhorn told me. "In Florida we have a governor who refuses to allow the bureaucracy to even say the word ‘climate change.’ So I think the battle for climate change is going to be fought street-by-street in cities across America. It’s real for us. As mayors, we don’t have the luxury of sticking our heads in the sand and pretending it doesn’t exist or fighting about the cause. All we know is that we have to deal with the impact on a day-to-day basis."

Too often federal or state actions either impact the viability of cities or download programs or responsibilities to local governments without the funding to pay for them.

Municipal finance officials are now studying the federal tax bill that was passed by Congress last week to determine if it will add substantial costs to important Tampa Bay projects. Financing sewers, airports, roads, schools, colleges and other vital civic projects remains a key local government priority.

Mayors understand the need for increased investment in modern infrastructure. But many American cities are falling behind because of the lack of investment by the federal and state governments in key areas that directly impact local prosperity. Poor public transportation, the faltering highway system, and the shameful fact that North America does not have one mile of high-speed rail mean U.S. cities may become less competitive in the global marketplace.

Local governments are critical to future economic and community success. When a city council falters, as the battles inside Madeira Beach city hall show, the community is torn apart and loses focus and energy.

This is a new era for cities. That is why electing visionary mayors and courageous council members is critical to civic success. This is not a time for the weak and meek in local governments.

Gord Hume is the author of seven books on local government and a respected international speaker on urban issues. Contact him at [email protected]

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