WASHINGTON — Sharon Sayles Belton, the mayor of Minneapolis, Minn., was just about to turn in one night last week when she decided to check her e-mail a final time.
What she found was a cybercomplaint from a resident who had a city sewer crew digging up the front yard, keeping the neighborhood awake until 2:30 am. So she, too, stayed up late to solve the problem. "I couldn't do anything right then, but at 8 the next morning you better believe a member of my staff was on it," says Ms. Sayles Belton.
Her attention to constituent detail is one reason some experts think American cities are now being run better than at any time in decades.
New technology and a new governing philosophy in many city halls is leading to a greater responsiveness to the little things that make cities work - everything from garbage pickup to fire-truck response. The new mantra often being heard: Ask not what your constituents can do for you. Ask what the city can do for its constituents.
That, at least, is one conclusion of an extensive new study on the management of American cities. Unlike some other urban rankings, this one conducted by Syracuse University in New York and published in the latest issue of Governing magazine doesn't look at the livability of cities - how many parks they have and how many cops there are on the beat.
Instead, it examines what city leaders and bureaucrats do behind their cubicles - the mundane tasks that often go overlooked in determining how well a city functions, such as fiscal stewardship and responsiveness to resident complaints.
"Cities well managed tend to run well," says Patricia Ingraham, who directed the study by Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. "That means garbage is picked up when it should be and firetrucks come on time ..."
The study found that of the 35 US cities examined, more than half earned a "B" grade, including Minneapolis. The best managed urban areas: Phoenix and Austin, Texas, the only two to earn "A" ratings.
Boost from the booming economy
To be sure, most all cities have been helped by the booming economy, which has made it easier for mayors and city council members to balance their books and focus on issues of growth instead of decline.
Austin is a case in point. The high-tech industry has generated thousands of jobs and billions of dollars for the local economy. But rapid growth has also brought a raft of problems, including traffic, suburban sprawl, and a lack of affordable housing.
To deal with it, city leaders have adopted an approach that many cities are now trying to duplicate: "smart growth." They are encouraging developers to build businesses and housing in Austin's core, rather than in the suburbs. The idea is to manage growth in a way that doesn't sully the city's quality of life.
Still, striking the right balance isn't always easy.
"Smart Growth is an easy sell, when you're just talking about the idea," says City Councilman William Spelman, who is also a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. "But when you get into the specifics, smart growth means more apartments and flats in your neighborhood. That's when it gets tough to sell."
The study gives Austin high marks for its ability to streamline certain bureaucratic chores, such as the building permit process. Today, all city agencies have Internet Web sites, and in two years, city leaders hope that all services will be interactive, so that citizens can lodge complaints or file paperwork online.
Phoenix rises from ash heap
The selection of Phoenix as the survey's top performer represents a dramatic turnaround from the city's past. Earlier this century, crime and prostitution were so rife in the city that the US military banned its servicemen from the town.
"Phoenix, up until 1948, was a poorly managed place full of corruption," says John Hall, a professor of public affairs at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Phoenix today has picked up a list of national and international awards for its streamlined management. What makes it work is an interactive management style between the city's executive staff and residents, according to Mary Jo Waits, acting director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, at Arizona State.
It is also one of the first cities to implement impact fees on developers to pay for infrastructure.
"The city has worked closely with citizens to produce campaigns that are thoughtful, strategic, and let people know what the funds are earmarked to," says Ms. Hall. Moreover, all bond issues are put together by citizen committees comprised of some 300 residents organized into various subcommittees.
Other cities that were once known for their problems and poor management have made dramatic improvements as well. Detroit, Mich., long synonymous with urban blight and high crime, earned a B+ rating. "In recent polls, the most important thing to people is education," says Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. "That's when you know a change has occurred."
In Washington, once known as the murder capital, a resurgence of sorts is under way, too. Though it earned a C- rating, officials give it an A for effort. "When you think of where Washington DC is coming from, you can't ding them for not being out yet," says Ms. Ingraham.
Take trash collection. Garbage pickup in part of the city has been stymied by a truck fleet 14 years old, twice the national average. But city officials have expedited the purchase of more than 20 new trucks, and crews are now clearing the backlog.
Despite the good news, there are problems in urban America - such as the lack of long term planning and capital investment in infrastructure. While coffers are full and services flowing, maintenance is still often ignored. By its own estimate, Los Angeles is deferring up to 80 percent of its critical maintenance on roads.
*Scott Baldauf in Austin, Texas and Paul Matthews in Phoenix contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society