Naperville appoints first mayor emeritus

A new Pradel-less era is underway in Naperville – or not, considering he was just named mayor emeritus

All city council members said they agreed with the sentiment of recognizing Pradel and giving him a title from which to continue volunteering to represent the city at ceremonial events, as he has done so frequently for the past two decades…

The resolution creates the honorary position of “mayor emeritus” specifically for Pradel and only for as long as Steve Chirico, who proposed the position, is mayor. As mayor rmeritus, Pradel, 77, is envisioned to act as a “goodwill ambassador” for the city at ceremonial functions, and to do so without a salary or a budget…

But council member Becky Anderson said she thinks Pradel’s is a special case. He’s the city’s longest-serving mayor who also worked nearly 30 years as a police officer and became known as “Officer Friendly.” Anderson called Pradel Naperville’s “favored son.”

An interesting move that allows Pradel to do what many said was the thing he did best: be a cheerleader for Naperville. Yet, this raises two additional issues for me:

1. This could be viewed either as trying to maintain some continuity with the past (not necessarily a bad thing in a community that has been pretty successful in recent decades) or an inability to move on from the past and seize the new era.

2. Why don’t more local governments have such cheerleader/figurehead positions? This may be written into the jobs for certain people – say, mayors in certain forms of government who don’t have much power or economic development directors – but not everyone has the skills to do this. If countries have these sorts of positions – a president or prime minister who shows the public face but the real work is done elsewhere by other people – why not local governments? My first guess would be that they wouldn’t want another salary to pay.

Convenient to see the end of Pradel’s career as a new era for Naperville

The Naperville Sun/Chicago Tribune ran a long story about Naperville mayor George Pradel stepping down and what this means for Naperville:

Longtime residents and colleagues say Pradel’s style — which he, himself describes as Naperville’s No. 1 cheerleader — suited the suburb well as about 42,000 new residents brought the need for new schools, fire stations and grocery stores during historic growth.

Naperville faces a new era now, as Pradel, 77, prepares to step down after five terms in office in May. His departure leaves one of four mayoral candidates with a new task of leading the nearly built-out city through its next set of challenges, from filling empty storefronts to countering an unwanted reputation as a party town after several high-profile, alcohol-fueled incidents downtown…

Since 1969, Naperville has operated with a council-manager form of government, which uses a full-time city manager to run the community’s day-to-day operations, while the mayor serves as the city’s public face, available to grand marshal parades and have dinner with girl scouts.

It’s an arrangement that Pradel said he’s been grateful for since he won his first election in 1995, a victory that caught him by such surprise that he didn’t even have an acceptance speech ready.

This is the sort of story that can feed the “big leader” narratives of history. But does it really fit here? Pradel was an outgoing character and a cheerleader. He was very visible. He had a long history in Naperville as a police officer. Yet, the story even reminds us that the mayor was a figurehead with the day-to-day work falling to the city manager. Naperville, like many cities its size, has a large professional staff. The city has a number of business and civic leaders who contribute.

This is not intended to downplay the role that figurehead leaders can play. Perceptions matter a lot within and among communities. At the same time, larger-than-life or long-serving leaders can often get the blame or credit for things that they didn’t do. Pradel was mayor over a particular period of time that saw Naperville peak in population (at least at this point without serious efforts to grow up), continue to grow a vibrant downtown, and encounter a few issues including traffic, some crime, and thinking about how to connect disparate parts of the city. Was he responsible for all of this?

This is where a more complex picture of Naperville or other communities can help. Some people indeed have more power and influence. But, communities have more going on than just one person.