Looking for a new kind of mayor

By MARION DAVIS  |  February 24, 2010

Perhaps you've seen the ads:

Wanted: Mayor. Start Date: January 1, 2011 . . . must inspire intelligent and transparent decision-making across all arms of city government and deliver services that support the well being of all residents.

A local group calling itself "Uncaucus" has posted them on Craigslist pages all across the country. But no, enticing as it may seem, they aren't really looking to recruit a far-away hero to come rescue Providence. The real point, says co-founder Melissa Withers, is to "broaden our horizons" about the qualities that make a good mayor.

"We're all rooting for a hometown hero," she says. "The best-case scenario is for a candidate to come from the community who can do a great job and represent all of the citizens. But I think what it does is, it challenges the usual suspects to . . . think a little differently about how they represent themselves to the citizens."

It's about civic engagement, Withers says, and about sending a signal to say, "We don't just have to sit passively and consume the candidates that are brought to us. We actually have an ability to go out and stimulate interest in the position and try to attract better candidates."

The Uncaucus sprang up on February 13, shortly after Mayor David N. Cicilline announced that he'd be running for retiring Representative Patrick J. Kennedy's seat. Withers and several friends, all active in the community, decided it was time to do to elections what "unconferences" have done to formal gatherings: turn them inside out.

"People are used to approaching a candidate based on their platform," says Owen Johnson, another founding member. "We're saying, let's think about the platform that we really want to see: What are the qualities that are important to us in a mayor? What do they believe in, in terms of government, transparency?"

The goal is to get a wide range of citizens talking about their priorities, find a consensus, and then encourage the candidates to embrace those values, Johnson says. "We're kind of reversing the process." There is a long history across the country — and in Rhode Island — of hiring top municipal executives, normally called city "managers." But that's not what the Uncaucus envisions, Withers says. And the "job description" the group created makes that clear.

While a typical city manager job might list requirements such as government experience, financial skills, and a knowledge of development issues, the Uncaucus Web site and ads seek not a manager, but a leader.

The requirements include an ability to create transparent administrative and fiscal systems, commitment to new modes of civic engagement, willingness to experiment, the skills to build new partnership models, and the courage to talk about the city's weaknesses while celebrating its strengths.

It's possible that an experienced politician could fit that bill, Withers says, and could bring "tremendous wisdom" to the job. But the Uncaucus members "just don't want to limit ourselves to a mayor who has a political pedigree," she adds, and they suspect outsiders could be more innovative.

"We recognize that the political system has some issues that make it really difficult for really new, disruptive ideas to come to fruition," she says. "I don't think anyone who's had any contact with government could dispute that. And it's not because there aren't good people doing good work; it's because systemically, there are a lot of barriers."

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