American Mayors Respond to U.S. Crises

As cities across the nation confront both an unprecedented pandemic and historic protests against racial injustice, Meridian gathered the mayors of three mid-sized cities to discuss what local governments are doing in response. On June 4, 2020, Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird of Lincoln, Nebraska; Mayor David Holt of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Mayor Paul Kanitra, of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey shared their views in a virtual Insights@Meridian conversation. 

Here are some key takeaways from the discussion 

  1. COORDINATION ACROSS GOVERNMENT. Pandemics know no borders, which means that local government officials had to coordinate with their neighbors and with other levels of government as they managed their responses.  At times this took the form of weekly calls between the White House and mayors nationwide, between local and state officials, and among different localities. However, while this decentralization posed a challenge, it also provides an opportunity for towns to act as “laboratories for democracy,” as Mayor Holt described them, where officials experiment with policy and learn from each other’s results. 
  2. “NOT ONLY RESILIENCY, BUT INCLUSIVITY.”These are the approaches Mayor Gaylor Baird laid out as her city, along with others nationwide, confront both the new challenges posed by COVID-19 and the longstanding pain of systemic racial inequalities. Mayor Holt is addressing these problems though police reforms, specifically by revisiting Oklahoma City police’s de-escalation policies and creating an accountability mechanism connected to a citizens advisory committee. The goal is, in Mayor Gaylor Baird’s words, “to be intentional about the kind of community we rebuild and economy that we foster. We don't want to go back to what was before, we want to figure out how to address systemic issues.” 
  3. REVITALIZING WITHOUT REVENUE.While the federal government has provided relief to small businesses coping with financial hardships from COVID-19, city governments are facing similar challenges with far less support,as most are not eligible for funding under the CARES Act and many are unable to borrow money. Cities that depend on sales tax revenue, like Lincoln and Oklahoma City, have seen their revenues and budgets drastically reduced, while tourism-focused cities like Point Pleasant Beach experience the same shortages. Meanwhile, they still have to find ways to fund public services like pandemic response and policing. However, all three mayors expressed optimism that the worst was over, in terms of revenue shortages, and that they felt confident in their ability to recover. 
  4. “THE UMBRELLA IS WHY YOU’RE NOT WET.”Mayor Holt says he often deploys this phrase to explain the necessity of continued caution around COVID-19. Mayors across the U.S. have varying responsibilities andpowers. Nonetheless, all share a direct pulpit to their constituents and have a responsibility to communicate tough policy decisions. A coordinated response and a clear message is essential in responding to different constituencies with differing views on the pandemic. 
  5. MAYORS HAVE CONVENING POWER.Mayor Gaylor Baird pointed out that, though forms of government are different across the country, all mayors have the power to bring people together and must use it to find ways to address systemic inequality. Mayor Holt added that as mayor he is “the face of the city” and can publicly encourage other white Oklahoma City residents to “start thinking about how we start giving everybody the same opportunity." MayorKanitra echoed these sentiments, noting that public figures “have a responsibility on your shoulders to be part of part of the change.” 

Insights@Meridianis designed to provide ambassadors and other senior diplomats with an intimate opportunity to hear directly from Administration leaders, members of Congress, policymakers and business visionaries on vital policy issues of the day. 

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