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It’s time for cities to lead from the bottom up

Adapted from my op-ed in the Rochester Business Journal dated February 3, 2017

I once asked the rhetorical question “Can the Nation’s Mayors Save the Federal Government from Itself?” The federal government was not designed to function well, I postulated. It was designed so that power would not be concentrated in one person whose dictatorial whims might lead the nation astray.

The change in our national political environment is driving new thinking at state capitols and in our cities. I recently heard Los Angeles Mayor Gil Garcetti refer to the constitutional right of states and cities to exercise the power not granted to the federal government. He was talking about the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

It’s echoed in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s call to codify the tenets of Roe v. Wade in the state’s constitution.

I hope we are seeing an incipient trend that will make government more responsive to citizens.

When I tell people I moved to Rochester, NY from Florida, the responses range from a quizzical stare to a blunt question, “why would you do that?” I endeavor to explain the sense of community I feel in my adopted hometown. Yet, few understand. Those who have lived here most or all of their lives take for granted the stewardship of local leaders and the strength of local institutions.


Downtown Rochester, NY

It has never been more important that we not take our local communities for granted.

Our national culture now equates loudness with leadership and abrasiveness with authority. We are beset by media that seeks to inflame more than inform; state and federal governments that tax too much and deliver too little; and, business and political leaders who seek to aggrandize themselves more than to deliver for their communities.

Rochester succeeds by remaining above the petty squabbling in which people now seem inclined to engage. Both the right and the left are guilty. They simply give in to the tendency to categorize, simplify and disparage any point of view with which they disagree, rather than to engage in dialog. The tendency isn’t mitigated by intelligence. More intelligent, better-educated participants simply provide longer, more articulate, yet still divisive replies.

The foundation for transcending this paradigm has been laid here in Rochester. We are tracking toward success because leaders have listened to affected constituents; created action plans; communicated effectively; and, delivered on their promises.

We live in a community where a Democrat mayor and a Republican county executive (both of whom succeeded members of their own party) are working together to support real estate development and infrastructure investment in downtown Rochester. Commercial buildings are being converted to residences in response to demographic trends. And, a series of blockbuster projects are changing the downtown landscape.

Our anti-poverty initiative began and has been led locally. An integrated effort by local government, volunteer organizations, churches and service providers is making great strides toward reducing poverty in Rochester and Monroe County. The United Way of Greater Rochester’s Blueprint for Change has outlined a funding strategy that has improved the lives of thousands of city and county residents.

The effort to provide our inner city children with education options other than failing public schools was organized and driven by local business leaders. With greater freedom from government-imposed bureaucracy and regulations, a dozen area charter schools are achieving success in closing the academic gap between our urban schools and their suburban peers.

The business community, coming together under the auspices of The Rochester Chamber of Commerce, has laid out priorities for 2017. Among these are better education, more affordable healthcare, improved infrastructure, and tax reform. These efforts will gain support from positive micro-economic trends in photonics, craft brewing, high technology startups and a thriving entrepreneurial community.

It’s not realistic to expect the folks in Washington to rein in the power of the federal government. Change must be driven from outside the system and it’s more likely to be driven by political, social and economic forces at play in our states and cities than by those inside the beltway.

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