Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blogger Candidate Forum: What The Mayors Can Do

http://www.citylab.com; October 3, 2017


Hello Everyone:

#BloggerCandidateForum tried to skip out on the weekly column again this week.  Fortunately,Yours Truly was a little faster and caught the naughty hashtag before it could make its escape.  Thought you could get away that quickly, could you?

Just one programming note: Yours Truly will be back to the regular schedule next week.  The major Jewish holidays will be over until the spring and Blogger can fully focus on bringing you all things architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design.  Speaking of which, shall we talk about Puerto Rico?

The American territory of Puerto Rico was devastated in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Please note that Yours Truly refers to the island as an American territory because this is a fact.  Puerto Rico is not a foreign country; it has been part of the United States since the turn of the 20th-century.  That said, there was no excuse for Mr. Donald Trump's painfully insufficient efforts and delayed response in providing assistance to the island.  Absolutely none whatsoever.  Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico's largest and capital city, stood before television cameras and told mainland viewers, and anyone else listening, 

We are dying.  And you're killing us with inefficiency.

Cut to the next scene: the President of the United States versus the Mayor of San Juan.  Martin Echenique reports in his CityLab article "The Power of Puerto Rico's Mayors," what followed was "A waterfall of tweets [twitter.com/@realDonaldTrump; Sept. 30, 2017; date accessed Oct. 10, 2017] unleashed Trump's rhetoric in response to Cruz's allegations."  That early morning rant culminated in The President accusing the mayor of Such poor leadership (Ibid).

Last Tuesday, the mayor and the president finally met face-to-face.  On Tuesday October 3, the president and First Lady attended a briefing on relief and rescue efforts with Mayor Cruz (hill.com; Oct. 2, 2017; date accessed Oct. 10, 2017) when they visited the devastated American territory.  Mr. Echenique writes, "...The meeting may reflect both the political importance of mayors in Puerto Rico, and their challenges in coordinating a recovery with limited help from the mainland."

Puerto Rican civic officials, like Mayor Cruz, who oversee larger, wealthier, or more populated cities like San Juan, wield more political power than their counterparts on the mainland who lead municipal governments similar in size and population to the Puerto Rican capital.

Mr. Echenique observes, "Despite her political and public clout, Cruz represents just one of 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico, each of them led by one mayor and a city council that acts as a legislative body."  This is different from the mainland which is "broken up into states, then counties, and then cities ( with the exception of some independent cities [en.wikipedia.org; date accessed Oct. 10, 2017]), mayors are the first line of leadership after the governor in Puerto Rico, reflecting its Spanish colonial past."

The United States Census Bureau sees it a little differently.  The Census Bureau equates the municipalities with mainland counties. In essence, "Puerto Rico has almost the same number of counties as Oklahoma, a territory that is almost 20 times bigger, and 18 times less populated than Puerto Rico."  Fascinating is it not?  Yours Truly cannot help but think that had Maria hit Oklahoma City (the capital of Oklahoma), relief, rescue, and rebuilding efforts would have gotten there a lot faster.  Just saying.  But we digress.  The territory's municipalities are divided into 902 barrios, which have no political representation or autonomy, "but are the smallest legal territorial division in the island according to the Census."

This division present an extra challenge to Puerto Rico's already bruised and economically troubled central government: it will have to coordinate relief and rebuilding efforts with 78 different municipal go entrants for months to come.  According to El Nuevo Dia, one of the island's largest newspapers, "there are still 12 of the 78 municipalities that were not able to reach distribution centers intended for the delivery of aid" (elnuevodia.com; Oct. 2, 2017; date accessed Oct. 10, 2017).

This was one of the reasons Mayor Cruz explained interviews that weekend why she passed on supplies (abcnews.go.com; Oct. 1, 2017; date accessed Oct. 10, 2017) provided to her city to the smaller surrounding municiopalities.

Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told ABC's George Stephanopoulous:

On Thursday,..., I got..four pallets of food, and four pallets of baby supplies from FEMA.  All of this I gave to the mayo of Camarillo, a town whose mayor had come to the FEMA distribution center and had been told just wait until next Monday because we have nothing. (Ibid)

As writing his article, Martin Echenique reports that "FEMA has given nearly $20 million in aid (FEMA.gov; Sept. 17, 2017; date accessed Oct. 10, 2017) to municipalities in Puerto Rico...(elvocero.com; Oct 2, 2017; date accessed Oct. 10, 2017).  To put this amount in prespective, Florida received  $545 million following Irma (fema.gov; Sept. 10, 2017; date accessedOct. 10, 2017); and Texax got $323 million in the aftermath of Harvey (Ibid; Aug. 2, 2017)

In the smaller rural areas of Puerto Rico, mayors have taken over real leadership positions.  For example, in the southern part of the island, 80 miles from the capital, six mayors from the government and opposition parties, joined together to coordinate relief and reconstruction efforts following the hurricane.  This joint initiative was led by Maria Melendez, the mayor of Ponce, Puerto Rico second largest city.

Mayor Melendez told Metro,

The most important thing about this meeting was the communication between mayors and the regional directors from different agencies...But, above all, the communication between us mayors, to start supporting each other.   (metro.pr; Sept. 27, 2017; date accessed Oct. 10, 2017)

Dr. Edwin Melendez, the head of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at City University of New York, told Mr. Echenique, "rebuilding efforts will be harder for poorer municipalities, as they will have to rely on the aid provided by the central government rather than their own resources to slowly restore publicservices under their responsibility,..."

Specifically, Dr. Melendez said,

Richer, wealthier municipalities are way more powerful.  San Juan and Guaynabo (part of San Juan's metro area, too), for example, have a lot more political power than other municipalities that are less rich...

Partly motivated by the island's crushing 70 billion dollar government debt, government leaders and lawmakers are considering the practicality of consolidating some of the municipalities.  Mayor Melendez noted "municipalities are-and will be impacted-by the ongoing economic crisis, now worsened after Hurricane Maria."

Supporters of consolidation posit "that it would provide one kind of solution to the island's financial distress: By bringing smaller towns together the do not necessarily need their own full local government apparatus, they might reduce the amount of money given in subsidies and salaries to every municipio."  Specifically, over half of Puerto Rico's municipios are running deficits and are unable to maintain their economic obligations.

Mario Negron-Portillo, a former director of the University of Puerto Rico's School of Public Adminstration, told the New York Times last year,

The majority are bankrupt, and they keep living off the central government that maintains them, and the central government doesn't have money now, either. (nytimes.com; July 26, 2016; date accessed Oct. 10, 2017)

Consolidation does come with a political cost, "as the municipalities in Puerto Rico are tied to an identity as to a sense of belonging, according to Melendez."  Dr Melendez argues "that it will be difficult for a municipality to lose its autonomy by joining a larger group of cities and barrios.  Speaker of Puerto Rico's House of Representatives, Carlos Mendez said,

We all have our own preferences in terms of our own geographical area, of our hometown. (primerahora.com; July 31, 2017; date accessed Oct 10, 2017)

Further, some of the mayor posit that they are the only ones who know best for their unique communities and can effectively advocate on their behalf.

However, Dr. Melendez believes that the island has no other choice.  He told Mr. Echenique,

The merger of some of these municipalities is inevitable because of the economic crisis.

The mayors of these municipalities also have an important function in linking their communities to the central government.  They are the primary bridge between their constituency and the de facto power institutions-ie the executive and legislative branches for the whole territory-a major difference in comparison to mainland American mayors.

As Puerto Rico navigates its way through what looks to be a very long recovery process, Puerto Ricans will most likely rely on mayors like Carmen Yulin Cruz to vociferously advocate for the help they need.