Mayor Matt Driscoll: The exit interview – part 1

Walt Shepperd 12/17/09More articles
Mayor Matt Driscoll in Armory Square during construction of the Jefferson Clinton Commons Project on the corner of West Jefferson and Clinton Streets. Now completed, the building houses the Sugarman Law Firm, Strategic Wealth Advisors and is the new home of Eric Mower and Associates. File photo Chuck Wainwright.
As the 2001 Mayoral Odyssey lurched between sirens in the street and the flood of white folks to the suburbs which reduced the city’s population by 100,000 in a generation, Syracuse was becoming a working class town with all the factories closing. The campaign mantra heard ad nauseam which heralded, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” numbed the electorate, and when hotly contested mayoral primaries for both major parties were cancelled in the wake of 9/11, the non-mid-stream horse changing adage came into play. The horse of that course was Matt Driscoll, who won the week later primary, although he had not carried the Democrats’ designation. Ironically, Driscoll had been placed on the City Hall mount, an incumbent with an asterisk, by Republican Roy Bernardi leaving office early to take a job in the Bush administration.

Four years later, ironies continued to abound, as Driscoll needed a flood of labor union volunteers from out of town to help get out a vote total which beat Republican Joanie Mahoney by only a whisker, with the registration rolls overwhelmingly Democratic. It was all about Destiny, with lines in the lakefront sand drawn and redistricted, the people’s vision darkened by rhetoric and rumor. For strategy, Driscoll drew on his experience as a baseball player and tavern owner, moving one base at a time and not sounding last call until Pyramid paid its tab. Risking references of a journey to Oz, he recast the environs as the Emerald City, although the greenery is often hard to envision. But it parlayed him a good job with the state, and mention as a possible running mate in next year’s gubernatorial race.

I was going to ask if you’re relieved, but you’re jumping into a major challenge immediately, with no time for transition.

Well, no, there’s not going to be a transition for me. I don’t know that relieved is a good word. Evidently I didn’t get the lame duck memo. I’m still working ten hours a day here, and my intention is to work up until I’m done. I’m termed out at the conclusion of December 31. Then I will be going right to work in my new position as president and CEO or the Environmental Facilities Corporation.

Are there things you are racing against the clock to finish?
No. I just finished up the Airport Authority, which I worked on for six years, and was able to finally convince our counterparts in the towns and villages, and others, to see the value in creating a regional airport authority.

That legislation is now down in Albany before the Senate and the Assembly. It’s going to happen. Whether it happens this year or next, I’m proud of that. I finished up a number of agenda items with the City Council, so I’m pretty much done with those. But there’s still a lot of work to be done here, which I am finishing up as well.

Has there been the major triumph?

For me, I don’t think you can say that there’s one thing. I absolutely believe that this city is in a far better place than when I found it. So I would never say it was just one thing. It’s sometimes no so easy to do, but if people looked back at the day that I walked in and became mayor, the things I said, and what I laid out in my State of the City addresses, each of them had a theme. But each of those themes was followed. My first State of the City talked about accountability and management, and how my goal was to change the structure of city government. My second one talked about reinventing city government. I’ve done those.

There were certainly seven others after that, but I recall when I came in I had announced actually that I was running for mayor in August of 2000. I was on the cover of the New Times, and it said, “First out of the chute.” You did the story. Consequently, in probably May or June of 2001, former Mayor Bernardi announced that he would be taking the job with President Bush and then, of course, I assumed the reins, per the Charter on July 10. So I was the mayor for six months. But in that six months what I said to all the city workers was, as I was also running, “But remember I was here doing the job.”

I made a pledge, during the day, do the job, learn the city business, and at night I would do my campaigning. I had talked about how we were going to move in a new direction, so when I became mayor, unlike other mayors, I did not make wholesale changes with the personnel. I said to everybody, “Look, I’m going to give everybody an opportunity to move in a new direction with city government, and it’s going to be a more business environment. I had four consecutive meetings or sessions up in the Common Council Chamber. I brought in between 600 and 800 city workers, and that’s where I showed the presentation of Who Needs My Cheese, a very simplistic look at how challenging it can be for people when they need to embrace change.

But my message was that we will be changing, and that the business practices of old are no longer the direction the city will be moving in. I think that really gave people an opportunity to view me first hand, separately from a Common Council President, but now as a mayor who’s mind set was to make us more accountable and to utilize our strength to forge a new direction.

We were successful with that.

With the second piece, reinventing city government, came the Syrastat program, which has been recognized across the state, won New York State’s highest award actually for best business practice. Officials from cities as far away as Long Island have come up to learn about this program. It has saved this city over $50 million, which is quantifiable in the eight years I’ve had in existence.

You had significant experience in city government before you became mayor, but was there something when you walked into this office after Roy left, that had you saying, “Wow, nobody ever told me about this.”?

You know what it is? I’ve had an interesting career. When I was on the Common Council, I represented the 2nd District, I represented the 3rd District. I ran for at-Large and lost. I ran for Common Council President and won. When I was Common Council President, I worked closely with many of Mayor Bernardi’s people. In the sense that I was always trying to bring new business practices. I brought, what people don’t see or hear a lot about, on the whole workers’ compensation issue. That’s a very costly, behind the scenes administrative function for the city. Workers’ Comp is a huge element. Any employer knows that. I was able to institute a new Workers’ Compensation program that’s still in effect to this day.

Having said that, when I walked in, when I sat down in this chair, I’ll never forget it, July 10th, I had just taken my oath of office upstairs and made my remarks. I came down here, while everybody was upstairs celebrating and enjoying the moment. I sat down in this chair, the walls were completely bare, the only thing on or in this desk was a pile of paper clips. There was no note to tell me where the bathroom was. The enormity of the responsibility hit me. For about 15 seconds it really hit me about the enormous responsibility I had now in guiding this city. That lasted about 15 seconds, and I snapped to started making decisions and started doing things like putting the city’s best foot forward.

Was there one that got away, that you really wanted, but didn’t happen?

All of us in life have things we want to do. I think history is going to show that this administration arguably has done more than any other, when you look at the picture cumulatively. One thing that didn’t happen that I’m proud of, though. This administration had the courage to attempt to resurrect the Mitzpah Tower. Let me be very clear on that. When I became mayor on July 10, 2001, that building had been dark for maybe 20 years. Although there was one attempt, that it would have been part of this Avenue of the Arts project, but was shelved. It sat there dark, dank, vandalized and leaking. I made a decision, against the advice and counsel of people who had been in city government for many years, who said, “It’s too big. It’s too difficult. It’s too expensive. Let’s not touch it.”

I said, “Listen, what’s worse than failing is not trying.”

We sold that property. It is not owned by the City of Syracuse. The owner stopped all the leaking, repaired the roof, boarded it up so it could no longer be vandalized—as you recall, all those stained glass windows were taken out. But more importantly, it is no longer the responsibility of the taxpayer. And I hope that the next administration attempts to salvage that building. It is the key building in our downtown. But make no mistake about it. It will take an enormous public subsidy, tens of millions of dollars, to make that building work, because there is so much uneconomic space in it. Now despite some of the people who said that they had the way, local people, they were going to do it, they were not willing to purchase that building, which was what was required in the RFP.

We made a decision with a group that purchased that building, and took it off the hands of the taxpayers. Consequently the taxpayers don’t pay any anymore, and they’re not liable for it. I hope that the next administration tries to do something with it, because I think not trying is far worse than failing.

When Carousel Center was first an issue at the Common Council, Pyramid’s Bruce Kenan would sit at the back of the Chamber and just listen to the debate. I asked him how he felt about all the fuss, and he said it was like theater. They were playing out a script, but he knew the ending. Do we know the ending of the script for Destiny?

Let me tell you what I know. And despite the urban legend and the misinformation that’s out there, because there’s frankly a lot of propaganda, probably on both sides of the aisle with this thing. Recall that when I was the 2nd District Councilor, I supported the initial Carousel Mall build out. The initial Carousel Mall, the one that sits there today, has been for 19 years the number one sales tax producer for the County of Onondaga and the City of Syracuse. It’s where the citizens make their money from, by and large. At the point when the big discussion was coming on this new vision, I held the single largest ever public hearing at Henninger High School with respect to the development of Destiny USA.

When I became mayor it changed from a legislative thing to making a deal. Now I had said all along, “Hey, I’m all for build out. I’m all for build out. I don’t like the business arrangement between the development and the City of Syracuse, because under the proposed build out and business model, despite the fact that certain groups were promoting that the city was going to benefit largely from all the jobs and all that—while that was true to some degree—there was nothing to benefit the city’s treasury. As I always said, “Who’s going to pay for the snowplows and the cops and everybody else that’s got to inspect it and help maintain the infrastructure around it?” Well, the City of Syracuse. Obviously the County Executive at that time and the Congressman at that time and many people were all pro-Destiny. So when Matt Driscoll said, “Time out. I need a better business model for my client, the taxpayer of the city of Syracuse,” you know the rest of the story.
And it took five and a half years and an election, where it was clear that people felt it would be better to have me removed than to try to get this new kind of model in place. But we got through all that. So here’s the result. The business model that was zero dollars to the city’s treasury in 2001, when the deal was done by Matt Driscoll and his team in 2006, went from zero to $60 million.

That’s how much money we got up front from that business deal. And the next administration will benefit from that agreement because the city will be receiving, for the next eight years, $3.4 million every year in revenue from that deal I did, and the county will receive $400,000 a year for the next eight years for that deal I did.

Next week: Kennedy Street, what’s green, St. Joe’s, new building downtown, no new taxes, and maybe a Final Four.

CATEGORY: Government
TAGS: Mayor Matt Driscoll,Driscoll exit interview,Republican Roy Bernardi,Joanie Mahoney,Syracuse Common Council,Mitzpah Tower,Destiny USA,
EDITION: The Eagle

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