The American tradition, as applied to presidents, governors and mayors, has been to measure a leader’s accomplishments based on how much happens in the first 100 days. It is usually an unfair measure.
Most newly elected chief executives face multiple problems inherited from their predecessors and have unexpected issues emerge that demand their attention. Every candidate tends to campaign on goals expressed as promises. Citizens read their own expectations into what they anticipate the new executive will do. The reality of what can be accomplished rarely matches these high expectations.
One way for the new chief executive — in this case, newly inaugurated St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones — to approach this dilemma is by distinguishing between immediate challenges and long-term strategic goals. For Jones, a few issues cannot be ignored for long. Most solutions are long term, but citizen expectations cannot be put on pause for a few years. An immediate challenge is the spiraling murder rate and daily media accounts of the latest victims, too often children. This cannot be ignored and is playing out in the context of an expired contract with an aggressive police union amid a national environment in which police actions are highly scrutinized and second-guessed.
She also can take advantage of a big opportunity. The federal government will soon send St. Louis a bundle of money, $517 million, for pandemic-related recovery projects. This is a unique opportunity to invest in the future of the city. But the decisions on how to spend the money are not the mayor’s alone. She will need to articulate her priorities, listen to the ideas of her constituents and others in the community, such as business leaders and social justice advocates, and negotiate a spending package to meet both long- and short-term needs.
Large and systematic problems are rarely solved in a span of 100 days or even four years. Ameliorating major problems requires a strategic perspective and the hard work of forging agreement among various stakeholders about the best path forward, recognizing there will be hills and valleys along the way.
The following strategic problems are not either in order of importance or likely success. It is just a list.
• Improving the education system: This isn’t the mayor’s job, but she should be a strong advocate. Too many children drop out of school or do not achieve the level of success necessary for life in a modern economy.
• Rebuilding the north St. Louis community: Housing and neighborhoods in all parts of the city are old and deteriorating. This is not only a question of physical structures or abandoned buildings but the loss of the vital sense of community in some neighborhoods. For too long, the north side has lacked the public and private investment essential for community sustainability.
• Understanding the business community’s needs: This is the core of the tax base and source of employment. Strategic effort is required to retain existing economic activity and develop new business, whether by start-up entrepreneurship or luring of employers from other places.
• Improvement of conditions for inmates at the downtown jail and closing the Medium Security Institution, or workhouse: The long-term challenge is reducing incarceration by improving mental health services in the community and addressing racial inequities in the entire criminal justice system.
• Reducing overall crime and improving relations with the police: The development of responsive social services to take some of the burden away from police is crucial. No one wants to live in a community without social order. To entice new residents and retain existing ones, a sense of order in the community is essential.
• Restoring city-county cooperation: The worst decision in the history of the St. Louis region was the separation of the city and county in 1876. One of the outgrowths of the failed Better Together campaign was the failure to convene a Board of Freeholders. A revitalized freeholder effort would be an opportunity for a region-wide discussion about creating the best government structure to address some of the problems caused by the separation.
• Restoring healthy budgeting: It is clear the city has a long-term budget issue. There is no quick fix. The influx of federal dollars may help to alleviate the problem over the next couple of years, but the city needs a strategy for balancing revenue and expenses over the next decade and beyond.
Some will measure Jones’ success, or lack of it, in the first 100 days. There are immediate challenges, especially the need to address the horrible number of murders. But her tenure as mayor will be judged more on her success in addressing the city’s long-term strategic problems. I wish her much success and a transformative term.