Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren — all new officeholders — participated Wednesday in an Albany Law School forum called “Leading a New Era in City Government: Women Mayors of Upstate New York.”
The public event at the school’s Dean Alexander Moot Courtroom gave attendees a personal glimpse into not only the day-to-day challenges faced by the three Democrats and their municipalities, but also their individual governing styles and the paths they took to leadership.
Mayors Sheehan and Warren are graduates of Albany Law School: Sheehan says her legal training comes in handy every day. "Really good lawyers can always argue the other side's case. And so that sense of empathy is so crucial, because the decisions that we make, ultimately as mayors, you know that there's gonna be someone on the other side of that decision who may not be happy."
Mayor Warren says she learned to pay attention to details. "Read the fine print. We get a lot of contracts that come across our desks. We have to really look at the language in all of our contracts to make sure that it is doing what's best for the citizens we represent."
Yepsen, who is not an attorney, says the best decision she's made since becoming mayor is to have surrounded herself with lawyers. "Just about everything we do with city council business, is because we're following the law. So every decision we make is pretty much you have to call in the city attorney."
The mayors agreed that financial challenges face each city. Sheehan's top priority quickly became understanding and organizing Albany's books. "We're broke, we need money. When I became treasurer I started asking questions. very basic questions. And I was shocked that nobody had the answers."
This month, Sheehan submitted an application to New York's Financial Restructuring Board, which could provide up to $5 million in loans and grants to improve government operations. Warren has done the same for Rochester. "The reason why we did that is because the state really doesn't understand the situation that many of our cities are in." Warren is hard-pressed to close a $37 million budget gap.
Yepsen called Saratoga Springs "the greatest small city" trying to become more walkable and bike-friendly, and cultivate local business to stimulate the Spa City economy. "The public-private partnership is clearly the wave of the future. Government can't afford to pay everything anymore." She adds Saratoga Springs faces many of the same challenges as larger cities and she's forging ahead forming coalitions with other female mayors. Perhaps the biggest challenge she faces now involves expansion of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway, seen as a likely location for a Vegas-style casino. "The majority of the residents of our city don't want increased gambling and yet that's a perfect location in so many other people's minds."
Warren doesn't want a casino in Rochester: not after taking at look at Buffalo. "Around the casino there's no life... you have a hotel but as far as restaurants, as far as any other development, it does not spark economic development."
Sheehan agrees with Warren: she feels Albany's development plan for downtown presents a much more attractive package than any casino. "You know you go to the casino in Niagara Falls, people drive in, go to the casino, they stay there, eat there, drink there and leave."
As for the presence of women in government, the mayors say they bring a different perspective to the table: "I didn't go into government so that I could play by the same rules. I went into it so I could chnage the rules" (Kathy Sheehan)
"I've always been a huge proponent of open government and transparency. I figure if we're proud of what we're doing we have nothing to hide." (Joanne Yepsen)
"We don't just listen to 'it's always been that way' - we really think about how we can do things better on behalf of our constituents, and we tackle and look to tackle the tough problems." (Lovely Warren)
The mayors have given themselves tall shoes to fill: asked to name their role models, names mentioned included Geraldine Ferraro, Shirley Chisholm and Kirsten Gillibrand - if you want to connect mayor-to-role model here's an extra sound clip from the forum: