In February 2014, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren — then, all new officeholders — participated in an Albany Law School forum called “Leading a New Era in City Government: Women Mayors of Upstate New York.”
A lot can happen in one year's time. The three Democrats were voted into office during a time when women in politics were making gains nationally. Each has her own unique governing style: each had a picture of what the year ahead might bring. Each reflects on what was hoped for versus what happened.
Mayor Sheehan's top priority a year ago was 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."
Today, Sheehan believes the goal of understanding the city's finances was reached. Albany's 2015 budget was built, she says, "from the bottom up." "Every department presented their budget to every other department so that we could get that cross-understanding of where there was overlap, potentially, where there is potential for savings. We still have budgetary challenges but we have a much firmer understanding of what's driving our expenses and where we need to continue to do work. And as a result of that, the 2015 budget has 5 million dollars of recurring savings in it that were identified."
A year ago, Lovely Warren stood pat on effecting change in Rochester: "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."
Easier said than done, it seems. Today, Warren concedes the problems are as tough as they ever were. "We look at our poverty and the amount of dollars and community support that rallies around this issue. It seems that we are losing the battle. We had to take a step back and look at new innovative approaches to poverty. I think that the surprise was really as a community and as a city, being willing to say, okay, we've always done it this way, but why is what we're doing not working and how can we make it better, and how can we be a better assistant to the citizens of our city that are most vulnerable."
Rochester recently partnered with the Bloomberg Philanthropies to develop innovative strategies to fight poverty. A $1.9 million grant is being utilized by the city's new Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives with the goal of reducing the poverty rate in just one section of Rochester by a single percentage point in a year. While that may not sound like much, Rochester has more people living at less than half the federal poverty level than any other similarly-sized city in the U.S., according to a report released in January by the Rochester Area Community Foundation and its ACT Rochester initiative.
A year ago, Joanne Yepsen called Saratoga Springs "the greatest small city" she vowed would become more walkable, bikeable and business-friendly under her watch. "The public-private partnership is clearly the wave of the future. Government can't afford to pay everything anymore."
She's followed through with that pledge as well as her promise to support people's rights. "I'm proud to be a mayor who calls herself a voice for the voiceless. I have the top CEOs of companies frustrated with the process but I also am helping minorities and homeless people, and women that want to start new businesses, or get off the sidelines."
Binghamton Mayor Richard David didn't attend the forum, but believes women in government can lead alongside men. "Whether it's locally here in Binghamton or across the state of New York, we have seen women, not only in Congress, the Senate, the Assembly and mayors... I think it's a very important viewpoint and position. There's a lot of a valuable information, insight and experience that they bring to the table, and these sorts of jobs are gender-neutral."