Published on Sustainable Cities

Mayors Behaving Badly

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Prison cell inside Alcatraz, San Francisco, CAEarly this year, former Mayor of New Orleans (2002-2010), Ray Nagin was charged with using his office for personal gain, accepting more than $160,000 in bribes and gifts in exchange for city contract work after Hurricane Katrina, as well as other city benefits.1 In total, a federal grand jury charged Nagin with 21 counts of corruption, including bribery, conspiracy, money laundering, wire fraud, and false tax returns. Nagin’s deputy mayor, Greg Meffert already pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and kickbacks for influencing city contracts in 2010. Nagin was Mayor of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, which makes the charges all the more damming. One of the worst natural disasters to hit the US, Katrina killed almost 2000 people across five states. FEMA’s estimated damage totaled $108 billion.2 New Orleans was especially hard hit, with the infamous levees and other infrastructure failing, and widespread socio-economic despair. Of course there were many factors, including the federal and state responses or lack thereof that made preparing for and rebuilding New Orleans challenging. But a strong mayor would have benefited New Orleans tremendously, and Nagin was not up to the task.

More unfortunate is that Nagin is not the only mayor whose failures to his city have recently been exposed. Dan Hoornweg previously wrote about mayoral woes in Canada and a bad 2012 year for mayors. But mayors behaving badly continue in 2013. Trenton, New Jersey Mayor Tony Mack was recently arrested, making him the 17th New Jersey mayor to be arrested in the past decade for corruption.3 Just last week, the former mayor of Central Falls, Rhode Island, Charles Moreau was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption. He joins former mayors of Providence and Pawtucket who also have been sent to federal prison.4 These stories again remind me of how important it is to have a good and able mayor to guide the city, and the impact- positive and negative- such a person can have on thousands if not millions of citizens.

For every negative mayor story there are countless out of the limelight examples of mayors doing good, often against incredible odds. But these are the stories that I am always more interested in. They provide good examples and models for other mayors to study and emulate. Mayors all over the world are facing similar challenges of a changing climate, aging and inadequate infrastructure, and the needs of changing populations. Many mayors are using innovative actions and means to address with these challenges, despite limited resources and powers. There are good opportunities for cross-mayoral sharing and knowledge transfer, and the key is to highlight and capture the process and outcomes of these mayoral actions.

In the first-ever comprehensive analysis of actions taken by the world’s megacities, the Climate Action in MegaCities report revealed over 4,700 actions mayors were taking to address climate change and promote sustainable development. Around the same time as Nagin’s indictment, some of the world’s most notable mayors were celebrated through The World Mayors Project’s biennial World Mayor Prize.5 “The Prize, which has been given since 2004, honors mayors with the vision, passion and skills to make their cities incredible places to live in, work in and visit.” Almost half a million people took part in the voting in addition to the interview and evaluation process.6 Bilbao Mayor Iñaki Azkuna topped the prize for his efforts in regenerating the city. But Nagin and others could probably learn a bit from second runner- up former Surakarta Mayor, current Jakarta govenor Joko Widodo (Jokowi), who was noted for his anti-corruption efforts, and his modesty, stating “I work because I have been assigned by the people, I never think that there will be appreciation”.7


Photo: Prison cell inside Alcatraz, San Francisco, CA. Source: Flickr Creative Commons, by Tim Pearce, Los Gatos


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