A platform for mayor

Attention India Walton and Byron Brown: You're free to steal all or part of this blueprint for reform and progress.
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Editor’s note: A version of this column appears in the current issue of Buffalo Spree.

Buffalo voters face a stark choice in November: Byron Brown or India Walton? A lot will be said between now and election day and some of it may actually involve proposals to improve the city. To prime the pump for an issues-focused campaign, allow me to offer an eight-point plan for revitalizing Buffalo. The candidates are free to borrow generously.

Here goes:

Poverty: Buffalo remains one of the poorest cities of its size in the nation. About one-third of residents, and close to half its children, live below the poverty line. Buffalo is going nowhere until it addresses poverty. Therefore, to the extent practicable, every new city policy going forward should in some way address poverty.

Political culture: Enact a reform package that includes term limits, a local version of the federal Hatch Act that prohibits city employees from working on political campaigns, a ban on campaign contributions from city employees and companies and unions that do business with city government, and public financing for campaigns. There’s a model that can be found in New York City.

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Transparency: I’d like to see a commitment to post way more information on the city’s website, including user-friendly maps and data that show crime, subsidies, public investment, neighborhood conditions, etc. I’d also like a commitment to honor the spirit of the state Freedom of Information Law to release information in a timely fashion. I’d like to see the mayor commit to regular press conferences, at least monthly, if not weekly. 

Police reform: We need an independent citizen review board to investigate and discipline bad cops, and that may be up for a referendum vote this fall. But true reform also requires a willingness to litigate or negotiate changes in the contract with the Police Benevolent Association to restore management rights to assign, promote and discipline officers that were given away by previous mayors. 

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Housing: Yes, $1,500-a-month downtown apartments are nice, but attention needs to be paid to providing affordable housing in the neighborhoods. That requires an effective inspections department and money to help mom and pop landlords bring their properties up to code. It especially means providing more money to efforts to abate lead paint in the city’s old housing stock, as hundreds of children continue to get lead poisoned every year.

Economic development: No more silver bullet projects. They don’t work, as witnessed most recently by the Tesla project in South Buffalo. There may be a reason to continue to invest some public resources in downtown, but the bulk should be directed to improve conditions and economic opportunity in low-income neighborhoods.

Capital improvements: The city commissioned a study several years back that determined there’s a need for some half-billion-dollars of improvements to municipal properties: community centers, libraries, parks, pools, ice rinks, even City Hall itself. These facilities have suffered from years – no, make that decades – from deferred maintenance. Then there are water and sewer lines, some of which date back a century. I know, a new water line doesn’t make for a good photo op, but the city is literally crumbling in front – and underneath – our eyes.

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Education: Less than one-third of students score at proficient levels in math and language skills. Employers complain too many graduates can’t pass a basic math test; professors say many require extensive remediation before they can handle college coursework. Yes, poverty is a problem, but the district spends nearly $1 billion a year and it simply must do better. The mayor needs to get engaged in city schools. If nothing else, he or she needs to use their bully pulpit and engage parent groups and other stakeholders to build a movement to demand better outcomes for students. As with the related issue of poverty, Buffalo is going nowhere so long as it produces so many students without the basic skills necessary to succeed as adults.