Mayer may not become mayor, but he has some good ideas

May 10, 2014

What makes a good mayor? Someone with both good ideas and the political and management skills to make them happen. Jim Gray has demonstrated both qualities during his four-year term.

Gray has two challengers for re-election in the May 20 primary: Anthany Beatty, who became a University of Kentucky vice president after retiring as Lexington’s police chief, and Danny Mayer, an English professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College who for four years published the community newspaper North of Center.

Beatty has demonstrated good management and political skills, but he doesn’t seem to have many ideas. His campaign website and public statements have offered only vague generalities about city issues and what he would do as mayor.

Mayer has little political or management experience, but he has developed a detailed issues platform. While some of his proposals are controversial, there are good ideas there worth discussing.

The Gray and Beatty campaigns have raised well into six figures. Mayer said he has taken only three contributions totaling $250 and has loaned his campaign a few hundred more. He hasn’t even invested in yard signs, which he admits was a mistake, and is mostly campaigning door-to-door and online.

“A lot of my work has been trying to plan out alternative visions and ideas; I look at it as the end point of what I did with North of Center,” Mayer said. “But rather than just talking about what we are doing wrong, this was a way to flesh out a positive vision for the city.”


Danny Mayer

Among Mayer’s proposals is a $15 hourly minimum wage for city employees and contractors, as Seattle is considering. He also wants to decriminalize marijuana use, which probably would require state rather than just city action. Both moves, he said, would strengthen low-income neighborhoods by putting more money in families’ pockets and fewer people in jail.

Mayer’s two main proposals are less controversial, and they make so much sense that they should be part of the election conversation whether or not he is the candidate who emerges from the primary to challenge Gray in November.

Mayer said that as mayor he would strategically invest in growing Lexington’s local food economy and developing the city’s “greenways” — abused and neglected urban streams and watersheds whose restoration could improve overall water quality, create recreational opportunities and provide paths for walkers and cyclists.

Lexington developed an extensive Greenways Master Plan in 2001, which was approved by the Planning Commission. But Mayer said too little has been done to implement and expand on that plan.

Under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lexington must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to correct long-ignored water quality problems caused by suburban development. That provides the perfect opportunity to make the most of our natural greenways, Mayer said.

Greenway development could help connect Lexington’s fragmented trail system, making it easier for suburban residents to get around on foot or bike. Modest infrastructure investments at key connecting points around Lexington could make a big difference, he said.

More walking and biking trails, along with investment in Lextran to expand routes and service hours would reduce traffic congestion and air pollution and increase mobility for low-income residents.

Mayer also said that as mayor he would budget $1 million for investments in local food, which has been growing in popularity. Growth in that sector will be important as climate change and rising transportation costs erode the nation’s industrial agriculture models of the past few decades.

Nutritious local food also fights obesity and other health problems that are contributing to rising health care costs, Mayer noted.

Investment in local food projects would create work for the growing number of UK and BCTC students graduating with sustainable agriculture expertise, as well as lower-skilled people who need jobs. It also would allow non-profit organizations such as Seedleaf and Food Chain to build on work they already are doing.

Some unused city park land could be used for expanding greenway trails or producing food, Mayer said, and the city could do more to promote backyard and community gardens.

“I see that as a 21st century economy,” he said. “These markets and segments are growing, but we haven’t talked about how we could legitimately scale them up. You just need models and an emphasis, like we did with Victory Gardens in the 1940s.”

Some advice for Lexington’s new mayor

November 13, 2010

Welcome to the mayor’s office, Jim Gray. You are inheriting a Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government short on money and beset by challenges.

Despite the shortcomings that got him voted out of office, Mayor Jim Newberry did a lot to move Lexington forward. He tackled some tough issues so you won’t have to.

Many difficult issues remain, though, and the stagnant economy is sure to make many of them worse. Consider last week’s news about a $7.2 million shortfall for city employee health care as a sign of things to come.

Still, this is a time of great promise for Lexington. There are encouraging grass-roots efforts all over town. The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games brought Lexington global attention, and the air seems filled with energy and possibility.

I’m sure you are getting plenty of advice, but I have some, too. Much of it comes from smart people I have talked with who know Lexington and city government quite well. Some of them didn’t vote for you, but they still want you to succeed — because they want Lexington to succeed.

First, don’t surround yourself with “yes” men and women. Too many politicians make that mistake and become insular, defensive and thin-skinned — and they fail. Be open with the media and the public. Don’t hold grudges. Your ability to engage the community is what got you elected. Don’t stop.

Mayor-elect Jim Gray

Mayor-elect Jim Gray

Many people, especially your friends and allies, will have ideas for you and requests of you. Give them honest, tactful and prompt answers. A non-answer angers most people more than a “no”. You can’t make everybody happy, and remember that your allies can be harsher critics than your opponents.

Seek out diverse opinions from both experts and average folks. Encourage opposing viewpoints and constructive criticism, especially when it comes from people who seem to be motivated by Lexington’s best interests rather than their own. Don’t fall into the trap of analysis paralysis. Be prepared to deal with unpleasant surprises.

Don’t pretend to have all of the answers, or feel like you must. Often, the best thing you can do is offer encouragement to other people’s ideas and efforts. Sometimes they need city government’s help; other times, they just need city government out of their way.

Look for public-private partnerships and smart ways to leverage city resources. Do more to engage the non-profit and philanthropic communities, not to mention the bright minds at the University of Kentucky, Transylvania University and Bluegrass Community and Technical College. A successful mayor is about coordination and collaboration, not control.

Reach out to Newberry’s supporters. Work to build credibility with your critics. It is especially important to have a good working relationship with the Urban County Council, which should have an excellent leader in Linda Gorton, your successor as vice mayor.

You must build better relationships with council members to whom you are not close — and be prepared to distance yourself occasionally from some to whom you are close. Be a good listener. Compromise when you can, but don’t be afraid to take unpopular stands when you think you must.

Everyone, including you, knows you are a better big-picture leader than a detail-oriented manager. That’s not necessarily bad — and certainly better than the other way around.

Some big-picture leaders make the mistake of getting too bogged down in details, which causes them to neglect the big-picture issues where they could do the most good. Play to your strengths.

Assemble a strong leadership team. You have chosen Richard Maloney, a former council member, as chief administrative officer and Jamie Emmons, your campaign manager, as chief of staff. Both are smart and well-liked. Do they have the management skills and toughness they will need? Time will tell. Be sure they have good mentors.

You must hire (or retain) strong leaders in key jobs, because inertia is the natural tendency of any bureaucracy. Elected officials come and go, and bureaucrats know they are likely to outlast you. Change takes time and persistence. Choose resourceful leaders who will motivate city employees to do their best — and hold them accountable when they don’t.

Avoid rewarding supporters with city jobs or contracts, because it will reflect badly on your biggest campaign contributor: you. Nothing will sour a “fresh start” honeymoon quicker than patronage and favoritism.

Good luck. Nobody said this would be easy.