By Paul Rozycki
Sheldon Neeley has been elected mayor in a close contest, defeating incumbent Mayor Karen Weaver by 205 votes. But as soon as the celebrations and victory parties are done, the hard work begins.
Whoever had won the election, the challenges for Flint would remain the same. What follows is a top ten “To Do” list for Mayor Neeley as he begins his term as Flint’s new mayor.
The water crisis
Clearly Flint needs to bring our water crisis to a conclusion. It seems like we are getting closer to getting all the pipes replaced, and scientists and experts are saying that the water is now as safe as it has ever been. Maybe we’re almost at the point when the water crisis is winding down. But it will take more than just pipes and scientific reports to assure Flint citizens that the water is OK to drink. With all the distrust that has built up over the last five years, it will take a long-term concerted effort to restore the trust in the system that brought about the water crisis. That will be a major job for any mayor. It has been for Mayor Weaver, and it will continue to be a major issue for Mayor Neeley.
But we have other challenges, some of which may be as important as the water crisis. Crime rates are edging up, and the number of police who are available is limited by the city’s resources. Flint has half as many officers as many similar sized cities. Thankfully, the state police and several college police forces have been able to step up, and play a major role in law enforcement in Flint. Flint needs to stay off the “top ten most dangerous cities” list. This has been one of Neeley’s top campaign issues, and he has promised to make it a major priority.
In addition to needing more police officers, the newly filed lawsuits against the city and its police force needs to be fairly resolved if trust is to be restored and confidence established with our police department.
Population and economic loss
A combination of population loss, along with the loss of GM plants and wages, have led to a dramatic decline in our tax base. To make matters even worse, when a city goes from 200,000 people to less than half that, the costs don’t decline as quickly. There are just as many roads to maintain, streets to patrol, and pipes to replace as there always have been. Yet the resources are much less. Even more challenging, legacy costs for retirees become more burdensome as fewer city workers are available to support the many who have retired from a city of 200,000.
As Flint has faced economic decline, the top job for any mayor is economic growth and development. There is some sign of that is taking place, but all too often the image of Flint as a ‘problem city’ discourages investors and innovators from starting new businesses here. The city government must be more welcoming to those with new ideas and projects and remove barriers to those who wish to start new projects.
Work with foundations
As we wait and hope for new jobs and economic development, the city needs to work effectively with the major foundations and non-profits which have been so critical to keeping things moving in recent years. The foundations can’t bail us out forever, and they have their limits, but they must know that they have a working partner in the economic growth of the city.
The ombudsperson and the new charter
After much delay, Flint has now appointed an ombudsperson, Tané Dorsey, as required by the new city charter. The ombudsperson has been the most visible symbol of the new charter and it’s time to give her the authority to make her office work as it is intended. It took a long time and effort, but as the first mayor elected under the new charter, Mayor Neeley must honestly and effectively make sure that the charter is truly the working document of the city—not only with the ombudsperson, but with all elements of the new charter.
The Flint City Council
The endless meetings and continual bickering of the city council are an embarrassment to Flint, and discourage investors and others from considering the city. While it may be beyond the control of the mayor, he needs to do whatever possible to bring some level of civility and productivity to council meetings. Let’s hope Mayor Neeley’s nine years of experience on the city council can help bring some order to their proceedings. Flint can’t afford to be a YouTube joke for the rest of the country.
Cooperation with the county
Flint needs work effectively with the rest of the county. There was a time when the city of Flint had the majority of the population, and the largest tax base in Genesee County. Maybe there was a time we could ignore the areas outside of Flint. That hasn’t been true for many years. It won’t be easy. There is certainly suspicion and distrust on both sides of the city’s boundaries. But other counties, like Oakland, have made progress by learning to work together with their central city.
While this election has been the first time two African-American candidates faced each other for mayor, race remains a significant problem in Flint. Typically for the last four decades, Flint saw a white candidate and a black candidates run for the mayor’s job, and, to a large degree, votes broke down along racial lines. Those frictions are still there, and it will be critical for the mayor to do whatever he can to heal those divisions.
It’s not just the mayor’s job
Finally, all of us need to remember that no mayor can accomplish these things alone. Any mayor needs to support, advice, and assistance of the citizens to make any of this work. In the end, that’s a job for all of us. Whether your candidate won or lost, (or even if you didn’t vote at all) it’s now up to everyone in Flint to work together on our top ten list.
EVM staff writer and political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.