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Opinion: Trenton residents must elect mayor who can think strategically

Trenton Mayors
The list of candidates running for Trenton mayor in 2014 includes (top row, from left) James Golden, Eric Jackson, Bucky Leggett, (bottom row from left) Kathy McBride, Paul Perez, and Walker Worthy. (file photos)

The various candidates for mayor of Trenton are issuing regular press releases about endorsements they have garnered and their upcoming fundraisers. While endorsements and funds raised are factors in election outcomes, they tell us little about a candidate’s ability to lead a city that craves new leadership.

The candidates owe it to the electorate to propose detailed plans for turning Trenton around. Some candidates have outlined their plans and put them on their campaign website. Others have not yet done so.

The most important attribute that Trenton’s next mayor must possess is the ability to think strategically. Voters need to assess which candidate has the best plan to reduce crime, improve the school system, revitalize neighborhoods, spur economic development and address the root causes of poverty, which is contributing to the despair that is eating away at the very soul of the city’s youth.

Andy Bruce and Ken Langdon got it right when they wrote in “StrategicThinking”: “No organization can succeed without effective strategic thinking; indeed, human beings cannot thrive … if they do not think about the future…. Strategic thinking is, therefore, a key competency.”

Those seeking to be Trenton’s next mayor should be able to articulate their plans and priorities for the city, which should include what specific budget cuts, if any, they would make, and in what areas they would seek to increase expenditures. They should indicate the type of people they envision recruiting for key roles in their administration and where they stand on the city’s detrimental residency requirement. They should pledge that all department heads will have a professional background and not just be political backers.

Managing municipal government is becoming increasingly difficult as the state and federal government reduce their roles in various crucial areas; more and more must be done with less and less. The City of Trenton is grappling with incredibly difficult problems that emanate from severe poverty. The consequences of electing someone ill-equipped to deal with the challenges Trenton faces could be catastrophic.

The best way to make good decisions is to commit to a decision-making process known as strategic planning, which seeks to understand a situation, envision a desired future and lay out an effective way of bringing that future about. Strategic planning is generally thought of as a twofold process that involves determining 1) what your organization intends to accomplish and 2) how you will move the organization to accomplish these goals/objectives over a specified timeframe. Simply stated, strategic planning is a process that positions organizations to achieve results aligned with its short- and long-term goals.

Strategic planning is not a magical process that guarantees a particular outcome. It is simply a decision-making approach that increases the likelihood that what is desired will actually come about. To paraphrase Gen. Dwight Eisenhower: Plans sometimes may not be achieved, but the planning process is indispensable.

The case of strategic planning was made quite well by the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián more than three and a half centuries ago when he wrote: “What is provided for does not happen by chance…. One must not, therefore, postpone consideration till the need arises. Consideration should go beforehand. You can, after careful reflection, act to prevent the most calamitous events…. Some act and think later — and they think more of excuses than consequences.”

A quotation that appears in bold on the front of the National Executive Service Corps publication “Strategic Planning for Nonprofits,” attributed only to “a large, well-known national nonprofit organization,” indicates why no entity can succeed without effective strategic thinking: “There is nothing permanent except change — the dynamic organization, in order to survive and thrive, must envision the future and reform itself to meet it, thereby shaping its own destiny. To remain static — to resist change — spells disaster.”

Trenton’s next mayor must be able to formulate a strategic plan for the redevelopment of Trenton. If a candidate has not shown that he or she can think strategically, it should signal to voters that the candidate does not have the right stuff.

How does one ascertain which of the candidates for mayor are strategic thinkers? Carefully scrutinize their education and their work history and look for verifiable evidence of strong decision-making ability and real accomplishments — not campaign fluff. Candidates should be peppered with questions regarding their familiarity with redevelopment strategies other urban areas have used to address the physical, social and economic ravages of urban blight. They should be asked in detail about their past achievements. The city’s print media can help in this process by pressing candidates for specifics and verifying their past achievements.

Trenton voters need to make sure that the candidate they select can bring about the change Trenton desperately needs. Voters need to get beyond campaign rhetoric, candidates’ organizational affiliations, where they were born and who’s running the respective campaigns and ascertain specifically what the candidates will do if they are elected. Trenton voters should support a candidate who has the ability to develop a blueprint for accountability and action: a strategic plan to guide Trenton’s future. That is the kind of leader Trenton needs, for a change.