If you think of a mayoralty along the lines of a college education, Byron Brown is now entering his senior year. With his election in November to a fourth term, Buffalo’s chief executive has set himself up for high expectations from a community that needs strong and focused leadership.
Brown has been a good mayor over three terms, serving the city ably and at a consistent level. But 12 years in, he needs now to deliver at a higher level. That’s the real value of his experience and among the main reasons a fourth term would be worth considering.
It’s no accident that Brown is only the second Buffalo mayor to win a fourth term. Executive branch officeholders usually wear out their welcome after two or three terms – and some after only one.
But when, for any number of reasons, mayors are especially well regarded or the nature of the opposition is particularly weak, they can have a long run. That gives them the opportunity to leave a legacy. Either they will have made a difference or they will have squandered a rare privilege given by voters who placed their trust in them.
For Brown, that opportunity shows up in several areas. They include: securing and expanding Buffalo’s economic and social revival, decreasing the city’s high rate of poverty, improving public education and continuing to professionalize the Police Department. All are interwoven – improving one can help the others.
For example, it is plain that decreasing poverty rates and expanding Buffalo’s resurgence are linked. They don’t have to be, of course. The economy can continue to grow without improving opportunity on the East Side, but that would be a failure of vision, fairness and municipal self-interest. They need to go hand in hand, and this is the time, while Buffalo has momentum.
That means not only undertakings such as the RiverBend project, in part by encouraging the development of support industries, but by pushing for expansion in Buffalo’s poor areas, along with more job training. It means finally doing something about the disgraceful conditions in properties managed by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.
It means looking ahead to the opportunities and challenges that Buffalo will face as a warming climate changes expectations and routines reaching back more than a century. As a part of that, it requires Brown to work toward protecting Lake Erie, whose water will become ever more valuable in decades to come, and to exploit – in the best sense of the word – the developing “blue economy” that is the birthright of cities such as Buffalo.
Improved education will help to feed economic development. As mayor, Brown has little direct influence over the city school district, but because the city helps to fund the district – and pays a price for its troubles – the mayor has an inescapable and urgent interest in its improvement.
Under Superintendent Kriner Cash, the district is showing improvement, but Brown needs to assert himself more directly, both at the district level and with support organizations such as Say Yes Buffalo. As graduation rates improve, so will the job readiness of Buffalo’s young adults. Crime rates will decline and the sense of hopelessness will diminish among those who see only dead ends before them.
Better policing will help in all parts of the city, but especially in minority neighborhoods where mistrust is common. When residents of those areas know that police are on their side, they will be more likely to cooperate in investigations.
Buffalo police have done a much better job of representing minority neighborhoods than police departments in some other cities – Ferguson, Mo., springs to mind – but not enough to create healthy relations. Buffalo is hardly alone in facing that challenge, but Brown should take it on.
One way to do that is for the department finally to earn accreditation from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. As Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman pointedly observed in a report last month, the Police Department’s investigation into the death of Wardel Davis III was compromised in part by weaknesses in evidence collection and in photographing the scene. Davis died last February after a confrontation with police.
Accreditation would provide a higher level of training and professionalism to the department in several areas, including investigations such as that in Davis’ death. The department moved last month toward seeking accreditation. It’s late in that effort, with 150 other police departments in the state already accredited, but at least it’s underway. Brown needs to act as a spur, understanding that the benefits will radiate into many features of the city’s life.
Those are starters. Much more can be done, but if Brown makes significant progress on matters such as these, he may be long remembered as one of Buffalo’s best mayors. That would be a legacy.