Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh: The First Year – Urban CNY News Interview and Review


Mayor Ben Walsh shares a moment with his father, former Congressman Jim Walsh, before swearing-in ceremony at Syracuse City Hall. It’s been a busy year with a new administration moving into City Hall. Swept up in the buzz of a political campaign, seldom do we look back and recall, “What did he say?” or, “What will he do in office?” And that’s where we’re going, as we review the first year of Mayor Ben Walsh’s Administration.

The first thing Mayor Walsh did, was establish ways of identifying challenges and measuring performance. Once performance is measurable, people and departments are held accountable. In announcing the implementation of the Performance Management Dashboard Mayor Ben Walsh said, “In addition to establishing a system that helps our departments to identify potential areas of improvement, we are building collaboration, breaking down silos, and working together towards innovative and creative changes,” said Mayor Ben Walsh.

Syracuse City Performance Dashboard

“This program is a way for us to be transparent about the work that we are doing and to hold ourselves accountable. It also allows our constituents, the people we serve, to hold us accountable.” 

Urban CNY: As we reflect on your first year in office how would you describe that experience?

Mayor Ben Walsh: It’s been exciting, it’s been humbling, it’s been everything I expected and a whole lot more. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting over the past few weeks heading into the end of the year. Overall, I’m really satisfied with what we were able to accomplish this year, but I’m feeling a greater sense of urgency to do more next year.

Urban CNY: What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced as Mayor?

Mayor Ben Walsh: Before we try to either take on any significant initiatives on our own or reach out to partners at the county state or federal level for any substantial amount of assistance; We really had to get our own house in order first.

While we’ve certainly been able to get some things done and move some of our initiatives forward, a lot of our time this year has been spent looking inward. We’ve been laying that foundation for growth. In terms of framing it as a challenge, I continue to have this sense of urgency that we need to move this community forward quickly, there’s so much to be done. But balancing that, with the importance of laying that strong foundation that can support the kind of growth we’re looking for.

Urban CNY: How are we going to create jobs in neighborhoods?

Mayor Ben Walsh: There are three key components to it. I said from day one, the first thing I wanted to do was create a diverse team and I feel confident that we’ve accomplished that. I’m thrilled with the team we have in place. Second was to work with that team to establish a vision and a series of objectives that we could hold ourselves accountable to, and also our constituents could hold us accountable to.

So, our vision is that Syracuse will be a growing city that embraces diversity and creates opportunity for all. On the topic of holding ourselves accountable, once we had that vision in place and those objectives in place that would advance that vison. We needed to have a system in place that would enable us to hold ourselves accountable to track progress. For us, that was establishing our office of accountability, performance and innovation and building out that performance management system that we have in the form of our performance dashboard. That tracks all four of our objectives, all of the associated key results, it allows us to hold ourselves accountable, but is transparent with all that information that empowers the community to hold us accountable.

With those pieces in place, it puts us in a much stronger position to grow jobs in our neighborhoods, that’s one of our four key objectives, is to increase neighborhood stability and economic opportunity.

So, you have to have that infrastructure in place, take it down to another level, one area where we think we can really begin to change the dynamic and start to create those jobs, is really focusing on our business corridors that act as the spines of our neighborhoods. So we’ve spent a lot of time looking at our neighborhood business districts.

Urban CNY: What are we doing, if anything to change our development agencies in both Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse?

Mayor Ben Walsh: I’ve spent a good amount of time talking with Ryan McMahon, first as a chairman of the Legislature and more recently as County Executive. We talked about more broadly, how we want to address economic development and economic opportunity in the region, but also specifically as it relates to development agencies.

One thing we’ve come to agreement on, it is to no one’s benefit for our Industrial Development agencies to be competing against each other. It results in a race to the bottom, that’s not a race that either of us have any interest in, participating in.  We are still working through what the right model is going forward.

Whether it’s having one county-wide industrial development agency that supports projects both the city and throughout the rest of the county or it’s just through our IDA’s staying in their respective lanes, as has historically been the case for the most part. Or whether there’s some sort of hybrid option, where we have two IDA’s but there are some efficiencies in staffing and administration.  We haven’t figured that out yet, but I think the most important thing first is to have a common understanding, that there’s no value in having the IDA’s competing against each other, and they’re not.”

Urban CNY: Have you been able to extend your diversity into those important mechanisms of Government?

Mayor Ben Walsh: Because those board positions are not elected, it’s critically important that they adequately represent the communities that they serve. When I came into office, one of the benefits I have is to appoint IDA Board members. When I surveyed the IDA Board, which I used to work with and for, under my previous title here at the city. I did see some opportunities for change, there were also some board members who were ready to move on.

So we do have a different, and I believe a more representative board than we had a couple years ago.  A few board members have stayed on, including Ken Kinsey, who’s been engaged in our city, in a number of different ways for a long time. Steve Thompson, who I believe plays an important role in keeping that connection between the Common Council and the IDA.

We’ve brought on some new members; we’ve brought on Ricky Brown who is Director of the Upstate Minority Economic Alliance. I think Ricky, both as an individual and representing his organization; give us a real unique opportunity to connect the various businesses he’s working with, have access, a place at the table at the IDA.  And I brought on a couple of other advisers and partners, Mike Frame who’s a Strathmore resident who works in the SUNY system and has a background in Economic Development, I met him during my time with the Metropolitan Development Association.   And Kathy Murphy, who lives over in the Sedgewick  Neighborhood, and has been engaged on a number of different levels in the community from Syracuse 20/20, to working in the public sector herself, so I feel really good about representation on the board right now.

Urban CNY: How do we handle our violence problem which seems to be plaguing our young People?

Mayor Ben Walsh: As I reflected on the past year, there’s no doubt I’ve had the hardest time dealing with violent crime, both personally and professionally. When you’re in a position like Mayor and what has driven me to being in this position, in addition to my desire to serve the community, is to solve problems. I pride myself in being able to solve problems by bringing the right people together.

Violence in our community specifically gun violence, I don’t want to concede that it’s an intractable problem, it is a daunting problem that is not unique to Syracuse, It plagues communities across the country. The fact that I have not been able to easily solve that problem, I struggle. On a personal level, feeling a sense of responsibility an obligation to solve that problem has resulted in me taking every homicide that we’ve had in this city very deeply, on a personal level.

There’s no easy answer, like every other challenge that we face we have to use data and look at the facts, look at what’s working. I think that’s what attracted me to our new Police Chief, Chief Buckner is that’s the way he goes about solving problems. It’s using data, it’s using research, it’s looking at what’s working and then getting it’s the right people around the table to work together towards solutions.

It’s about getting the right people around the table that’s not at all limited to law enforcement, that’s the community, that’s neighbors, that’s non-profit partners. It’s going to take our entire community at every level at every sector to begin to solve this problem.

The Wash Administration:  A review

Walsh Inauguration Swearing In

The Walsh Administration has been quick to acknowledge that there are a lot of challenges in Syracuse, New York. But to his credit, Mayor Walsh has developed a way to measure performance against the challenges. What better way to determine where you’re heading than to find out where you are. By utilizing Performance Measurement techniques, the city is establishing a baseline as to where we are and what’s the best way, forward.

The new city of Syracuse Performance Management Dashboard online at Performance Management Dashboard  will provide a method to see how the city is doing as it works on measuring performance of municipal operations.

Snow Sledding– Some may have thought this was a strange thing to do given snow on our sidewalks. But those Syracuse natives remember when our hills were full of kids and adults sledding down the hills in many of parks. Sledding has been prohibited for years. In January 2018 sledding returned to Burnett Park.

Syracuse Police Chief, Kenton Buckner

Police Department – After a seamless transition from the previous administration, Walsh retained Police Chief Fowler.  With a committee led by Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens, the city embarked on a nation-wide search for a new leader for the Department.

Kent Buckner former Police Chief of little Rock Arkansas was selected and a process that involved input from the entire community. A series of meetings were held as these choices were narrowed to Mr. Buckner.

Parks Recreation and Youth – The department has successfully transitioned after the initial shakeup at the Commissioner level. New leadership was put in place she has extensive experience in “Parks” and has already made changes to the department.

Department of Public Works – A department with the toughest responsibilities; snow removal plowing 25 square miles of city and managing trash collection in Syracuse.  Digital Systems are in place streamlining the reporting of neighborhood conditions, and determining status, such as if the plow has been on your street.  With the unexpected fall snowstorm, the city issued a rare apology detailing what happen.  This administration has been forthright in taking the heat when something doesn’t go as well as we may expect. Snow Removal Program – city is implementing a method to take care of snow removal on heavily traveled areas of the city. The first municipally financed snow removal program in a city that averages 120 inches per year.

City of Syracuse Snow Plowing Map

GPS powered Snow Plowing Map – Want to know if your street has been plowed? The new GPS powered Snow Plowing Map will indicate which streets have been plowed. The city will then use data to adjust deployment of equipment and other resources.

 

Housing Stability – Instead of placing binders on the shelves full of great ideas for cities, the Walsh Administration has made seeking solutions to neighborhood stability is key to many of our municipal ills. Especially when in some neighborhoods, two-thirds of the residents move within a year.  An impoverished population of constantly moving residents, present major implications for Syracuse as the city’s looking for ways to stabilize rental housing. The community was encouraged to read the book, “Evicted”

Mayor Walsh Swearing In Sharon Owens as Deputy Mayor

Appointments– Mayor Walsh has appointed the most diverse group of people the city has even seen. Appointing Sharon Owens as Deputy Mayor, along with an assortment of people throughout city government reflective of the diverse community Syracuse has become.

African American inclusion in the implementation and management of Syracuse at the mayoral level is unprecedented. Usually, after a democrat wins City Hall, there are a couple of notable appointments of people known within the Black community. Ben Walsh broke the mold and created a top tier staff reflective of the city’s diverse population. Not content relegating inclusion to a few, there’s now a list of major appointments selected from the Syracuse African American community.

Leadership – Walsh has been a listener and city protector. In one of the tensest periods of his first year, after multiple shootings on Midland Ave, a reporter wanted to focus on gangs and gun violence, in an on the scene “Live” interview. Without missing a beat, Walsh said, “We’re concerned about the victims this evening”.  He’s clearly networking with all elected leaders in an effort to turn the page from years of rancor in inter-municipal relationships that preceded his election.  One year after being sworn in, Walsh has led by example.  In addition, he’s introduced an important new benefit to city employees.

In Conclusion

The aforementioned are only a sampling of what’s been going on in Syracuse City government. With the election of Ben Walsh, the city of Syracuse ushered in a new era of cooperation, not seen between local, county and state governments for a number of years. while. He’s shown an ability to listen to all sides and taking into account what Syracuse neighborhood residents feel and think about our community. In a short period of time, Ben Walsh has led a city from the depth of doldrums, to a community that’s poised for greatness. We’re debating exciting new challenges that come with the future of Interstate 81, and opportunities Syracuse has, as we look towards our future.

We’ve had a year of great challenge and change; Syracuse elected stellar leadership in Ben Walsh, leadership that will continue our community’s quest to, Rise Above.