Jencunas: Elorza’s First 100 Days - Potholes and Snow

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


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Ever since Franklin Roosevelt, politicians have been judged by their first hundred days in office. The timeframe is largely arbitrary, but the beginning of an administration usually sets the tone for what will follow. 
Mayor Jorge Elorza’s first hundred days in office have been characterized by snow, potholes and little else. The big projects he talked about during his campaign have faded into the background, with little or no public progress made towards Elorza’s goals. The day-to-day realities of managing a city have seemingly crowded out the big projects.

Elorza’s lack of action is more striking because of the central role that big, transformative ideas had in his campaign. On education, Elorza promised schools that were also community centers at night and on weekends. The port was going to be transformed into a shipping hub that could compete with Baltimore. Not only did Elorza pledged to hire more police but he would implement new, community-focused policing. To address vacant and abandoned homes, the city would establish a $5 million revolving loan program. Like so much in Providence, these bold ideas were buried by the snow.  

That didn’t need to happen. The snow and potholes could have been used as springboards for Elorza’s goals. Specifically, the potholes were a perfect way for the mayor to call for better technology. Rather than just a having photo op with a pothole filling crew, Elorza could have announced that Providence would implement Boston’s technologically forward way of filling potholes. 

Boston and "Street Bump"

In Boston, potholes are reported in real-time rather than after-the-fact by angry motorists. An app called Street Bump uses the sensors in iPhones to detect potholes, and countless drivers have downloaded the app and constantly give data to the city. Boston now fills 92% of potholes within two days, compared to 48% before developing Street Bump. 

Providence can copy this, but it’s the kind of change that needs a mayor’s support to overcome the inevitable inertia of a city used to doing things a certain way. This winter would have perfect to marshal support for such an idea. If Elorza had championed a Providence Street Bump, citizens would have credited him as a problem solver and would have been more tolerant about the crater-sized potholes dotting the city. Instead, he filled the potholes (and did so with reasonable speed given the severe winter) but hasn’t shown that he’ll improve the city services.

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Big ideas will probably reemerge during the budget debate. Mayor Elorza’s budget will likely have money allocated to the different proposals he made during the campaign. But letting them be forgotten has given the city council more power in the budgeting process. Had Mayor Elorza been focusing on one or two of his ideas – perhaps highlighting community schools by visiting each school, meeting parents and students, and explaining what a community school would do for the neighborhood – he would enter the budget process with public support for his budget.  
What happens in public is only a small part of city politics, and there could be plenty of progress being made behind closed doors. But citizens judge a mayor by what they see. So far, Jorge Elorza looks like a mayor who things happen to rather than a mayor who makes things happen. 

In contrast, Boston’s Mayor Tom Menino, one of the most successful modern mayors, had two major achievements in his first hundred days. He stopped water rates from rising and put city bond issues out for competitive bidding for the first time in city history. Menino sent a clear message that he was a mayor who would make things happen in his city, and he did so successfully throughout his two decades as mayor. 

It’s still very early in Jorge Elorza’s administration and the record isn’t all bad. It’s easy to criticize snow removal, but this winter was a record. The initial response to the blizzard was good, with no interruptions in emergency services and nobody freezing to death in their homes or cars. The cleanup was slow, but Elorza and his appointees are new, so a learning curve was inevitable. Things could have been a lot worse, but unfortunately leaders don’t get credit for preventing a bigger failure. 

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To use a football metaphor, Elorza’s had a stalled first drive but we’re still in the first quarter. If he has a good budget, or helps attract a major employer to the city, and this will be a forgotten minor stumble. But right now Elorza looks passive. Passive mayors usually don’t get much done, instead ceding power to other interests like the city council and entrenched bureaucracies. That’s hardly what people voted for when they elected a young, energetic candidate who vowed to change Providence. 

Brian Jencunas works as a communications and media consultant. He can be reached at [email protected] and always appreciates reader feedback.


Related Slideshow: Reactions to Mayor Elorza’s Inauguration Speech

Providence residents, community leaders, and elected officials turned out in the face of cold temperatures to hear Providence's newest Mayor, Jorge Elorza, give is inauguration speech at Providene City Hall on Monday, January 5.  

Read Mayor Elorza's speech HERE.

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Jim Vincent

"I thought it was great, it showed a lot of optimism. He has a plan. I think he knows the city, I like the fact he's a young guy - you'll need a lot of energy to move the city forward, and I pledge to work with him."

- Jim Vincent, NAACP Providence Branch President

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Sam Zurier

"I thought it was comprehensive.  It was thorough -- I iwas expecting a few themes, but he went into a lot of areas.  I look forward to working with him."

- Sam Zurier, Providence City Councilman

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Jo-Ann Ryan

"I'm excited to work with the Mayor and new council.  I love Providence.  I'm excited to have a new Mayor focused on arts, culture, recreation, which are all important to me.  He's got a wonderful vision, and I look forward to working with him."

- Jo-Ann Ryan, Providence City Councilwoman

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Seth Magaziner

"I thought it was excellent speech, I thought it laid out an ambitious agenda.  As a Providence resident, I think we need a Mayor who thinks about the big picture.  I thought he had good specifics.  The Treasurer's office being a financial office, I stand ready to assist the mayor's office and his team with the city's finances.  We have a lot of work to do, and I look forward to it."

- Seth Magaziner, Rhode Island General Treasurer

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James Diossa

"I'm very excited that the Mayor's taken on the job that was started by the previous administration.  I look forward to working with him, he's got new energy, ideas.  He's innovative, and looking for ways for the city to stand out and be successful."

- James Diossa, Mayor of Central Falls

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Kobi Dennis

"It was refreshing to say the least.  I liked that he had the community component, and I just thought people felt included.  He talked about some of the things that [former Mayor] Taveras was doing, but not in the beginning.  It's a new beginning, it's a new start."

- Kobi Dennis, Founder of Project Night Vision

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Nellie Gorbea

"It was great.  It's an exciting time for the entire state.  Having Mayor Elorza at the helm is important, because he's a leader, and leadership matters. I'm excited to work with him."

- Nellie Gorbea, Rhode Island Secretary of State

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Keith Oliveira

"I thought it was a powerful, visionary speech.  Much of what he's talking about is in line with what the school board is moving towards - neighborhood schools, arts education policies, so having [the Mayor's office] get behind that is great. Redirecting resources from central administration to the schools, we've been moving forward with our school autonomy policy, so much of what I've heard is in line with what we're trying to do."

- Keith Oliveria, Providence School Board President


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