A Gathering Of Mayors

“It’s possible to be fierce, fierce in your dedication to change, to what’s right, to making things better–without finding the source of your power in the destruction of others.”– Seth Godin


Last week, thanks to the efforts of the Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce and the talented Suzanne Spencer, seven former Delray Beach mayors met with the new class of Leadership Delray for a roundtable discussion on leadership and local history.

It was a blast.

And the Seth Godin quote above was a common thread for these mayors who represented local history from the 1980s through today.

Doak Campbell, Tom Lynch, Jay Alperin, Dave Schmidt, Tom Carney, current Mayor Shelly Petrolia and I shared stories, challenges and experiences from our days and nights in the trenches of local government.

It was a special afternoon and we need more of these types of get togethers because local history is special and relevant to the issues that we face today. The gathering was recorded by the class and will be given to the Delray Beach Historical Society. I look forward to seeing and sharing it with you someday soon. Each mayor brings a unique perspective to the job. My theory is that public office is much like an MRI–it reveals who you truly are. Your good qualities are revealed and your weaknesses too as expressed in decisions you make and your leadership style.

Doak Campbell presided over a somewhat tumultuous time in the 80s, with a revolving door of city managers and department heads, worries about crime and concerns about how to revive a desolate downtown. Despite a fair amount of political infighting, Doak’s commission made some huge and important moves: establishing a CRA, forming the first historic districts, agreeing to restore Old School Square, focusing on downtown and passing a landmark bond issue which led to tremendous improvements in the city’s infrastructure and how we viewed our future prospects. Mayor Campbell left his successors with money, a vision and some very promising seeds. He was a successful mayor.

Tom Lynch and Jay Alperin followed Doak. They successfully implemented the Decade of Excellence bond and brought needed stability to City Hall and to politics itself. On their watch, the Tennis Stadium was built and the seeds were planted for a downtown renaissance. Stability is very important to success. We tend not to appreciate stability until we lose it and we see the damage that volatility can bring to a community. Tom and Jay were gentlemen and they treated city staff and the public with respect; challenging both to bring solutions not just complaints to Commission chambers. I respect their leadership skills and learned a lot from watching them as a young reporter covering city government.

David Schmidt and I followed and we emphasized community engagement and citizen driven planning which led to a downtown master plan, a cultural plan, a parks plan, an effort to improve race relations and a continued focus on education. I learned a lot from sitting on the dais next to David. The commission’s we served on were ambitious and energetic–we wanted to bring about positive change and work to advance what other mayors had started. We saw ourselves as civic entrepreneurs and wanted very much to engage and involve the community. David empowered those who sat next to him on the dais and was always a calm and reasonable voice even amidst heated controversy.

Tom Carney wasn’t mayor for very long but he has been involved for many years serving on the Housing Authority, CRA and as founding president of the Arts Garage. We were glad he was at the roundtable to lend his long term perspective.

Newly elected Mayor Petrolia was gracious in her remarks referring to the success of Delray and her role as a steward giving the analogy that she was handed a golden egg and it’s her responsibility not to break it.

She also outlined the pressures facing current leadership ranging from crime concerns, schools, how much growth there should be (and where) and the need to shore up our infrastructure.

Based on the questions that Leadership Delray students asked, I think there was a good appreciation for the challenges of being a mayor of a town like Delray.

I often consulted with my predecessors because I knew that they loved Delray, had relevant experience in the issues we were facing and would understand the unique pressures of the job.

I saw former mayors and commissioners as resources that I could tap into in order to understand the genesis of issues and what paths were possible.

To their credit, they gave advice willingly knowing that ultimately I would make my own decision but that it would be informed by their valuable input and perspective.

I couldn’t imagine not tapping into the wealth of knowledge that exists here and I’m sure in other communities as well. Of course, you want a range of opinion and so the most effective elected officials seek out all sorts of voices—young and old, business owners, people from different parts of the city etc.

That’s how you succeed in what is a very difficult and all-consuming job.

Delray is a dynamic and challenging city. There are incredible opportunities and a lot of daunting challenges as well.

We need people with passion, a love for the town, humility, emotional intelligence, strength, foresight and courage to step up and lead.

Last week, I found myself in a room with a bunch of those types of people and I left feeling connected, happy and excited about our past, present and future.

Thanks Chamber, thanks Suzanne Spencer, thanks Leadership Delray and thanks to my fellow mayors for being so inspirational.



Water Cooler Wednesday: In Praise of Joe Riley

Mayor Joe Riley has led Charleston for 40 years.

Mayor Joe Riley has led Charleston for 40 years.

The New York Times ran a great story Sunday on Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, S.C.

The Times called Riley possibly the most loved politician in America.

Cynics may think that’s like naming your favorite disease, but Joe Riley is proof that politics can be noble and that good politicians can get things done and leave a remarkable legacy.

I was fortunate to meet Mayor Riley some years back at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting. He spoke about place making and believed strongly that mayors should be the chief architects of their cities.

After his speech, I had a chance to speak with the mayor and invited him to Delray. We traded dates, but sadly it never quite worked out and that’s unfortunate because Mayor Riley has some great lessons to teach about cities, places, preservation, new development and leadership.

The Times article notes that Riley made a big bet on culture back in 1977 when he brought the “Spoleto Festival” to Charleston. The festival raised Charleston’s national profile and positioned the city as an arts haven.

Here’s how the Times’ Frank Bruni described his thinking: “Almost as soon as we sat down together, he talked up the annual Spoleto performing-arts festival, a renowned Charleston event that has bolstered the city’s profile. I wasn’t sure why he was choosing to focus on it or how it factored into any political philosophy.

Then he explained his reasons for pushing for it back before it was first held in 1977. “It forced the city to accept the responsibility of putting on something world-class,” he said.

Yes, he wanted the tourists who would flow into the city and the money they’d spend. Sure, he wanted the luster.

But he was also staging a kind of experiment in civic psychology and doing something that he considered crucial in government. He was raising the bar, and Spoleto was the instrument. It simultaneously brought great talent to Charleston and required great talent of Charleston.

“You need to commit a city to excellence,” he said, “and the arts expose you to that.”


Riley, 71, has been mayor since December 1975. He will step down in 2015 after 40 years of leadership. During his tenure, he has been embraced and sued by preservationists and environmentalists, evidence of how hard it is to make and keep friends when you make decisions on the local level.

Unlike state and federal politics, local elected officials vote around the block from where they live. There’s no hiding and the decisions are often personal affecting neighbors and friends. Once those decisions are made there’s no place to hide. And that’s the beauty of local government. It’s the government  closest to the people and increasingly the only level government that seems capable of getting things done.

Says the Times:  “What people want from government, Riley stressed to me, isn’t lofty words but concrete results. They want problems solved and opportunities created. Mayors — ever accountable, ever answerable — tend to remember that and to wed themselves to a practicality that’s forgotten in Washington, where endless ideological tussles accommodate the preening that too many lawmakers really love best.”

It’s important to share Mayor Riley’s philosophy because of the wonderful opportunities available in Boca Raton and Delray Beach especially if local leaders engage the communities they serve and embrace the real power they have. The great thing about cities is the work is never done, even when you experience success; especially when you experience success. The challenge is to stave off complacency and to leverage the opportunities you were given by the hard work of those who came before.

I find Mayor Riley an inspiration. Here’s a sample of his thoughts. We hope you enjoy:

  • “A great city is one that has a dynamic economy and jobs for its citizens. With the work of generations, we have made Charleston a most desirable place to live. We must create and attract more and better jobs here so our people and their children and their grandchildren can stay or come back home and work and live in the community they love.”


  • “A great city works to make sure we remember those who might be forgotten.”


  • “What does it mean to live in a city?  A great city is not only lived in but it is carefully and diversely used. A long time ago it was said that “Charleston was too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.” That has long since passed. A new affluence has graced our city. And with that, there may be on the part of a few the misunderstanding that they live in or have moved to a place that is like a gated community – affluent and exclusive. But that is not a great city. Great cities are a part of a larger public realm.  There will always be sights and sounds in our city – the announcement from the Coast Guard Station; or on another part of the peninsula ships arriving or embarking; fire engines; and sometime long ago, vendors with their wonderful songs and calls announcing their fresh crabs or vegetables; children romping, healthfully engaged in athletic activities on our playgrounds; students going to college; workers coming to the hospitals; cranes lifting huge containers; scientists and software engineers coming to work; streets and sidewalks bustling with people engaged in commerce, parks and public spaces busily and diversely used and shared; quiet zones for repose, reflection, solitude.  The answer to that question is that a great city, as Charleston is, is a real city – a public place, diverse people and activities working, living, energizing each other and happily sharing their city.”


  • “Never, ever, ever take for granted the citizens that you’re serving and always be asking yourself, ‘Is this the right thing?”


  • “Leaders should lead. Leaders should not be worried about the next election. They should be worried about the next generation. They should be worried about the next generation looking back at their time in office and say that they did the very best that they could to make sure that now, 25 to 50 years later, we have what we have. “


  • “The need for beauty is embedded in the human instinct. There is never an excuse for anyone, but particularly a government, to ever build anything in a city that doesn’t add to the beauty of the community.”


  • “The restored public realm is something. There is a yearning in the heart of every resident of a metropolitan area. They may not articulate it, but they want it. They need it. And if you give it to them, they will rejoice in it.”


  • “Do Americans want beauty in the city? They desperately want it! They crave it! Life is harsh and cruel and plastic enough. Will our people support this? They will support it. They will rejoice in it. They need it. It is our responsibility to give it to them.”