January 15, 2019

Grains of Salt (v40): Ben Walsh Reflects

Ben Walsh, the Independent mayor of Syracuse, will give his second State of the City this Thursday at the Red House, the newly renovated arts center on Salina Street.

In advance of that address, he had a Question-and-Answer session with Chris Baker of the Post Standard/Syracuse.com, and an interview with India Miraglia of SU's The Daily Orange, In both of those interactions with the media, Walsh shared his thoughts on his first year in office. The information - and quotes - below came from both of the articles linked above.

Among the highlights, he said:
  • hearing from people that there's a new energy and renewed sense of optimism for Syracuse;
  • establishing a strong vision for the future - for Syracuse to be a growing city that embraces diversity and creates opportunity for all;
  • having a very diverse team, at all levels;
  • identifying strategic 'building blocks' of fiscal sustainability; neighborhood stability and economic growth; constituent engagement; and finding effective and efficient ways to deliver city services;
  • holding spending flat, as well as identifying savings opportunities;
  • the new sales tax agreement with the County; 
  • focus on public safety (new police chief, new recruits for the SPD, and a new fire chief); and.
  • and the summer jobs program.
What else was on his mind?

One thing he wishes had been better is turning the optimism he hears into reality for Syracuse neighborhoods and residents, and being able to see progress for them.

He also expressed concern about the violence we've seen, saying (in the nicest possible way) that things go better when the community cooperates and shares information with the police, vs. the alternative of no one knowing anything.  He was pretty honest about this part, noting
At least initially, I focused a lot of my attention on...how do I want to put this... how we could get the community to cooperate more fully. Initially my focus was on the community. But more recently, and through conversations with Chief Buckner, I've started to look inwards and started to think about what we are doing or we are not doing as the city or the police department, that is leading people not feeling comfortable assisting us.
I think that gets back to relationships between law enforcement and community, between government and community. So that's been an evolution for me as I've thought through that challenge and increasingly I'm going to put the onus on us to fix that problem, not the community. 
He's also looking ahead to further collaboration with new County Executive Ryan McMahon, with whom he's been friends for years, having been in City Hall during both the peak and the nadir of city/county cooperation under the previous administrations. He's seen it work, and fail, and like everyone I think they both would prefer to be successful.

Poverty continues to be a big concern, and finding ways to address it is a priority for his administration; one of the hallmarks of his team is innovation and using data to help identify opportunities on which innovative solutions can be tried.
Rather than just throw up my hands or start to make assumptions about why we were on that (high-poverty) list, I challenged my team to really dig into that data and try to understand what was really driving it.
Capturing data and understanding it helps prioritize initiatives and put resources on things that are really impacting people. This includes things like the streetlight project, in which the city buys the lights from National Grid and can then use them to help us become a 'smart city.' That initiative will save money, but also provide the foundation for city-wide wifi, for example.
You need to be sensitive to the people's different realities based on where they're at and where they're coming from. It's balancing again the community engagement, the priorities of the community, with the data and using all of the information to inform sound decision-making.
Overall? A good start, but he wants to see more.
I do continue to feel a sense of urgency that it has to happen quickly. Not just because my time is limited in this position, but because in many ways our community has struggled for a long time and we owe it to the community, to our constituents, to make significant improvements as quickly as possible. 
I'm looking forward to seeing what he puts on the table at his second SOTC, and where he's going to take us next.

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