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Local Governments Tested by Challenges on Multiple Fronts

June 8, 2020 by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON – The year 2020 will no doubt be remembered as the year when crisis and turmoil took center stage not just in the U.S., but around the world.

From a global pandemic, to upheavals in the economy to social unrest in the wake of the police killing of an African-American man in their custody, there has hardly been time for anyone to step back and objectively take stock of what we have all been experiencing.

Over these many long weeks, much of the focus on the response to these crises has been on what’s transpired on the state and federal level. Less told are the stories of local community leaders who more often than not, are the leaders most likely to be found at the front line of the response.

Last week, the Meridian International Center, a nonprofit, global leadership organization located in Washington, D.C., convened a virtual panel of mayors to discuss how their communities have been affected by the ongoing challenges this unique year has thrown their way.

The participants were Lincoln, Neb. Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird; Oklahoma City, Okla. Mayor David Holt; and Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. Mayor Paul Kanitra. 

Lincoln is one of the few American cities that has never implemented a shelter-in-place order. 

Baird contended the city was able to take advantage of the experience of coastal communities to “preview what was headed our way [and] take strong and early action.” 

The city’s health care system was never overwhelmed, and Baird said it was fairly straightforward for any businesses affected to resume operations. Even so, Lincoln maintains a risk dial to forecast the ongoing potential threat and give public guidance to the community.

Oklahoma City, on the other hand, saw its first cases of the coronavirus in mid-March. The city declared a state of emergency on that same day and closed non-essential businesses a week later. 

Though this and other restrictions were lifted statewide on May 1, Holt suggested he may have preferred a slower reopening. As of Sunday, Oklahoma had 7,150 cases, most of them in Oklahoma City and nearby Tulsa. Sixty-five percent of the state’s residents live in or near these cities.

Point Pleasant is a markedly different city from the others with representatives on the panel. A beach community in New Jersey, a state hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak, it has a small year-round population that swells exponentially in the summer months. 

While city officials worried about visitors from the state’s hot spot areas infecting its year-round population consisting largely of senior citizens, they were also deeply affected by the lack of tourism and travel. Early measures taken to combat the pandemic included shutting down the beach and boardwalk and adding parking restrictions for those enjoying a socially distant visit. While some areas have since reopened, rides, amusements, and games are still shut down, which is problematic for the resort town. 

“Our economy is driven by July and August,” said Kanitra.

Public health and economic recovery are “inextricably linked” according to Baird, recognizing that these dueling woes are causing decision-making conundrums in many community sectors. As in many American cities, Lincoln’s coronavirus focus has been targeted at supporting local businesses, but with city budgets failing, she must now advocate for city relief as well. 

“Fifty percent of our budget is based on sales tax receipts,” Baird said. “We’re losing and bleeding revenue at the same time that we are trying to put in place infrastructure to rebuild.”

“We’d be fools not to be preparing for a second wave so that we don’t repeat, economically, March and April,” said Holt. 

And while Kanitra said Point Pleasant is fortunate to have a good rainy day fund for government operations, local businesses in his jurisdiction are still particularly challenged. “[Shoppers] can go to Target, but can’t go to the local surf shop,” he said.

And while handling the staggering health and economic impacts of the pandemic on local communities, new issues concerning civil unrest, protests, and in some cases, rioting, have surfaced, making key decisions about restrictions and easing that much more complicated for local officials. Both in terms of the threat of the virus and protests, the situations call for “coordination at every level of government,” according to Baird.“[Local community officials] recognize that as we try to implement measures and guide public choices… it’s really productive to have a unified response.”

New Jersey, for its part, is a home rule state in which every town and borough has the right to govern itself, which “results in a lot of different personalities” according to Kanitra. A one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t necessarily work for all 565 municipalities, so he agrees that coordination, like sharing information and learning from each other, has been key.

Democracy can be “messy in times of crisis,” said Holt. In 2020, local governments have had to take into account not only all of a community’s different constituencies but all of the disparate actions each constituency wants to be taken in dealing with multiple crises simultaneously. Holt contends, “all of that has been a major part of the challenge.”

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