By Mark Funkhouser
In my January newsletter, I described five reasons I’m feeling optimistic about local government. This month, I’d like to introduce you to three new mayors whose stories confirm my positive outlook for the future of our cities. I’ll also share my takeaways on what to expect from them as the real work of governing begins.
The mayors of San Bernardino, California, Newport News, Virginia, and Deltona, Florida, are new to politics with a mandate for change from their voters. They are young, high-energy, smart and courageous in taking on a role that comes with more responsibility than authority.
Implementing their visions for the future will require relationship-building, not just with the community but also with their city councils and city managers under the council-manager form of government in place in all three cities. They already have begun to wrestle with the thorny issues and near-term crises that make being a mayor one of the hardest — yet most rewarding — jobs.
San Bernardino Mayor Helen Tran, 40, is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees. Born in San Diego and raised in San Bernardino, she was the first in her family to earn a college degree before beginning a career as the long-time human-resources director of San Bernardino and then West Covina.
She begins her tenure as mayor just as San Bernardino exits a 10-year bankruptcy process and shortly after the previous mayor was censured by the council for misuse of city funds. “As a professional, it made me realize we need a leader who can effectuate change as effectively and expeditiously as possible,” Tran says.
At 33, Newport News’s Phillip Jones is the youngest mayor elected in the state’s history. A native of the city and son of Air Force veterans, he graduated from the Naval Academy and served six years in the Marine Corps infantry before earning master’s degrees in business administration and public policy from Harvard.
His work as a management consultant has informed his approach to leading the city with a focus on innovation and efficiency. Being mayor, he says, “is the best job in America because you sit at the intersection of citizens and the state and federal government.”
Deltona Mayor Santiago Avila Jr., 40, is a first-generation Hispanic American of Cuban and Mexican heritage. He grew up in Miami and West Palm Beach. A marketing consultant, he applied his public-relations savvy to his run for mayor. He says he was inspired to run after he observed inconsistencies in code enforcement and comprehensive planning to protect his flood-prone city.
While Deltona is the second-largest city in central Florida, it often gets overshadowed by neighboring Daytona Beach and DeLand. “I want to change that and make sure we get the attention we have earned,” Avila says.
All three mayors took office with a crisis requiring immediate attention.
In San Bernardino, Mayor Tran is searching for a permanent city manager and needs to win funding to rebuild the mayor’s office after the council eliminated staffing for it during the previous mayor’s troubled tenure. Those two immediate priorities will help her achieve her longer-term ones of addressing homelessness, improving public safety, building affordable housing and redeveloping downtown. Tran believes she has a mandate for “change that brings unity.” The city, she says, has gone through “crisis after crisis after crisis and never had a moment to take a breather and reflect on those crises and to really figure out what’s the next step before the next crisis happens.”
Mayor Jones took office at a time when Newport News was reeling from a school shooting in which a 6-year-old brought a gun to school and shot his first-grade teacher. Instead of implementing his 100-day plan, Jones immediately stepped into the hardest mayoral role there is: comforter-in-chief. “The city needed a bridge-builder to bring council, the school board, city manager, parents, teachers and unions together,” Jones says. He commended Police Chief Steve Drew for his focus on community and extraordinary service during this difficult time. Working together in times of crisis builds trust between a mayor and his executive team; now, Jones’ focus on public safety, along with education and workforce development, has even greater meaning. His drive to direct investment toward the north and south of the city, where poverty is concentrated, may help prevent future violence.
In Deltona, Mayor Avila began his term just six weeks after Hurricane Ian and a week after Hurricane Nicole caused record flooding. “Top among our current problems is stormwater infrastructure,” he says, noting with frustration that a 100-year flood plan the county had developed nine years earlier has still not been implemented. He’s prioritizing work to repair the current damage, reduce the consequences of poor planning and pursue county, state and federal funding.
All three mayors are focused on listening to their communities through town halls, one-on-one meetings, conferring with mentors and collaborating with county and state partners. It’s a more aggressive approach to finding resources for cities that may have been passed over in past administrations, and I commend these mayors for stepping into the arena as they prepare to make tough decisions.
As a former mayor myself, I know a little something about making tough decisions under the auspices of a mandate for change. Following is a list of takeaways I hope all new mayors will find instructive as they seek to implement their vision, start their first budget process and determine desired outcomes for their cities’ future.
Things are often not what they seem. Challenges come at you fast, and sometimes there’s competition among politicians to be the first to react. Perhaps it’s because of my years as a government auditor, but I’ve learned to take a second and consult with close colleagues and experts before arriving at proposed actions. A city has only one mayor, and what he or she says matters a lot. Better to be right than to be first. But if you must react immediately, follow your instincts and lead with trust and transparency.
Governing is a process, not a project. There is nothing named after me in Kansas City, but when I left the mayor’s office the city was, despite the Great Recession, in the best financial shape it had been in for a decade. Violent crime was at a 20-year low. Managing the money well and working to make a safer city are the foundations for a thriving community, but there are no groundbreakings or ribbon-cutting ceremonies to celebrate those efforts. The mayors featured here are smart to focus on efficiency and human-centered government. Finesse the requests for projects and prioritize the things that actually matter to the people who elected you.
For downtown revival, water the grassroots. Since the destructive, tragic days of urban renewal in the 1950s, a lot of cities have been trying to “save” downtown, usually with the promise that those investments would spill over into neighborhood improvements. I haven’t seen much evidence of downtown investment actually “trickling down” to generate community wealth. Downtowns are the locus of money and power, but the city can’t thrive if the neighborhoods aren’t thriving. For Deltona, the search for a downtown where the community may gather and residents support small local businesses is an opportunity to make smart investments from the ground up.
Revitalization is about restoring trust and a sense of community, not bright shiny toys. Convention centers, stadiums, aquariums, centers for the arts — the list of projects to “revitalize” your city will come at you relentlessly. Most of them have nothing to do with what residents need from their city government, and their trust and confidence in their government’s ability to meet their collective needs becomes eroded. Revitalization must build on the restoration of that trust and confidence. These young mayors seem to get that. In San Bernardino, for example, Mayor Tran is working on building trust and cooperation with the city council, and in Deltona Mayor Avila is focused on listening to residents.
Allocating resources is a zero-sum game. You cannot spend the same dollars twice, and you cannot focus on more than a very few priorities. There is enormous pressure to spend a little money and a little time on lots of different things, often in the name of “fairness.” The result will be that not enough of either has been spent to make any real impact. To govern is to choose, and choosing means saying “no” and pissing off people, sometimes powerful people. Say no anyway, so that when you say yes it makes a difference. In Newport News, the focus by Mayor Jones on innovation and finding cost savings across the board will allow investment in priorities like public safety and workforce development. Efficiencies found through rigorous data analysis, performance-based budgeting and “planned abandonment” — shutting down programs that are no longer needed or aren’t producing desired results — offer a way to concentrate impact and balance the budget.
These three new mayors are emblematic of the hundreds of newly elected officials across the country who have heard the call to step into the political arena. I am heartened by their diverse backgrounds and fresh perspectives, as well as the courage and energy they bring to the job. As they navigate the crises, complexities and opportunities that come with the mayor’s office, they have a chance to foster more connected, prosperous communities by working with the people they serve to mobilize positive change.