A look back at Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan's tenure

Monica Sandreczki
December 30, 2013

The new Mayor of Binghamton, Rich David, will be sworn in at City Hall on January 1st. David replaces Matt Ryan. After 8 years, Ryan is termed out of office at the end of the day tomorrow.

We thought that now would be a good time to take a look back at Mayor Ryan’s tenure. This is an extended segment of Monica Sandreczki's interview with Ryan, conducted at his office in City Hall in November.

Morning Edition Host: Why did you want to become mayor? I mean, it’s a tough job. Why did you want to fill this role?

Mayor Ryan: Well, I’ve always, I was brought up in a tradition of public service. My father, even though he never even finished high school, he was very well-read and became one of the top industrial salesmen for 3M Company, came up here, he was an FDR Democrat from Philadelphia but his territory was up here. They took a chance on him even though he didn’t have a high school education. He ended up becoming, like I said, the best salesman in the country for 3M Company.

But he also was very involved behind the scenes in politics and always kept us abreast of what was going on. We had a lot of discussions at the dinner table. And he ran for supervisor of the Town of Fenton, even though it was a 3-to-1 Republican town. He had no chance but he kept making sure that there at least was a dialogue.

So I learned it from a very early age how important public service was and then I got involved with working for the Division of Youth for 9 years. Then I went to law school, was a public defender for 15 years and I just thought I wanted to try something new. I always thought I’d do something in politics and then when Mayor Bucci became term-limited, I thought I’d give it a shot. I thought I had a real progressive agenda to bring back Binghamton and that’s why I did it.

ME: I suppose at the start of each term that you had, how did you set your administration’s priorities?

MR: We got together, we had a real grassroots campaign to get elected and we said we were going to bring people together from all of the neighborhoods. We went to Burlington, Vermont right away and looked at their very successful neighborhood assembly program. So we started neighborhood assemblies all across the city to get people’s input.

And then we, I prided myself on making sure that I put only really qualified people in managerial positions in the city. No political favors, nothing like that. I made a lot of people mad and I think that’s part of the reason I got primaried by a Democrat my second time around. But I was never really, when I went to the Democrats the first time, they said, ‘we don’t want you to run.’ I said, ‘well, that’s not really the way it works. I’m allowed to run if I want to run.’

And I embraced not only Democrats but the Working Families Party who I think are the Progressive Democrats around here. And so we put together a coalition and that led to putting together a very strong team to get people involved in government and really start to work on some of the problems we had around here.

ME: Is there an example of one of the neighborhood meetings where your thinking was really challenged on an issue?

MR: Well, it wasn’t exactly a neighborhood meeting but last year when NYSEG surprised us and started to really radically pruning a lot of our beautiful trees, especially on the West Side, we had a meeting there and, I’ve even lost friends over this because they’ve, you know, said, ‘you gotta do something.’ And I said, ‘the PSC…’

And it ties into a lot of things because once we started having all of these tropical storms, bigger and bigger storms that are all across our country, I’m sure the PSC said to them, Public Service Commission, you’ve got to make sure that you keep areas around utilities, especially electric power, cleared out so that when we had these storms, we don’t have you know all these wires coming down and really exasperating these tragedies.

And so you know they hadn’t done any pruning in a long and all of a sudden they come to us and say we’re going to do this pruning. We really have no choice but to let them do it. They don’t even have to ask us for a street permit. They have that much power.

It was a tough one because people thought I had power to do something and I really didn’t but that was a pretty tough one to deal with and rightfully so. We’ve done more to protect trees in this city. We became a Tree City USA. We got a $50,000 grant from DEC to create an urban forestry plan. We’re implementing it. We just got 100 trees from NASCAR because they heard about us. We got $10,000 now from NYSEG because we finally kept pushing them, saying, ‘look, you’re doing all this to our trees, we want to have some compensation for it.’ They just gave us $10,000 and we’ve gotten a lot of other trees donated to us. We’re really working on having that urban forestry canopy. So something like that, we were doing it anyway, but something like that really points to how people can get very angry at government and sometimes you don’t have an answer they want to hear.

ME: I guess then, tell me about your two proudest accomplishments from your time in office?

MR: I would say it’s, you know, a lot of people know I’m one of the most liberal mayors on social issues. I’ve done a lot of things that people who don’t like me say have nothing to do with city government although I would argue against that.

We have been, if anybody ever looks at the numbers, in fact I showed them to a former Republican councilperson who is a financial person, who knows numbers, and I showed him the numbers and the numbers are so clear that we are the most fiscally conservative administration that’s ever been in the City of Binghamton.

We inherited a complete nightmare and we’ve cleaned it all up. We went from a $219,000 unencumbered fund balance to now over $6 million and our next audit is going to be soon and we think it’s going to be closer to $9 million, which is where it should be.

And our tax increases for the last four years have been less than 2% and that was with a pretty hefty retirement incentive the year before last. So if you took out that retirement incentive, we would have had less than 1% percent for the last four years of our administration. That is sustainable government.

There was a lot of talk during the last campaign about having sustainable tax levels. We are there now.

ME : Here in Binghamton, what was the Ryan approach to the struggling economy?

MR : It’s been about bringing in people, improving the infrastructure that we had downtown, which one of the things I’ve embraced from the beginning was trying to bring more people downtown.  We would like it to be a little more evenly mixed -- most of it’s students, but we don’t control the marketplace. You know, we’ve got over a thousand new people living downtown. Our theory was if we can strengthen our urban core, it will start to spill over into neighborhoods, which it has and we know have a whole new bunch of businesses on the south side across from the Newman Project and the Weissman Project. It’s becoming a more livable, walkable community. There’s still some pieces missing, we’d like to see a nice grocery store, something like that right in the downtown area.

ME : Given that Binghamton has an aging population, decline in manufacturing even in the last year, negative job growth, what do you think is the key to prosperity for Binghamton?

MR : The real hope for our future, I think, is in clean energy technology and we’re being bypassed by the rest of the world who's doing all this research. And we should be doing much more of that and that would create a lot of jobs as well. That’s why, I wish the governor would embrace, if he wants New York to be the most progressive state in the Union like he talks about, he should bring all the great minds from the country together and say you come and prove that we can have a clean energy economy, prove it in New York state, then let’s take it to the rest of the country and the rest of the world. If the governor ever embraced that, a lot of research being done at Binghamton University is in clean-energy technology.

ME : Well, it sounds like you have a pretty wide worldview from what I can tell.

MR : I really think one of the big things we need to be looking at is becoming communities that reinstitute creating products for themselves that will bring jobs back to the community, that will be invested in the community. We’ve become a community of high-tech and service industry jobs and no manufacturing jobs. We don’t make anything anymore hardly, compared to what we used to. I think that’s the component we have to bring back.

ME : You ran against Rich David in 2008. How do you think he’ll do in the mayor’s office?

MR : Based on rhetoric of the campaign, I’d be afraid. Based on the transition, I’m more hopeful. It’s a different world than when he and Mayor Bucci were in office. You know there was a lot of talk about how we’ve been downgraded. If there had been a recession back then and Moody’s was paying attention -- I’m telling you, these rating agencies didn’t pay much attention until the recession. If they had seen what this city was doing back in the eight years prior to our administration, how much fund balance they were spending and how little of a fund balance we had, they would have been downgraded severely. And I like his, he’s been talking about he’s going to bring in the best and the brightest. I hope that’s true and he doesn’t bring in just political friends because you need, when your government becomes smaller and smaller, you need to best and brightest because you need to be able to do the job with less people.”

ME : Since you’re outgoing, is there any practical advice you have for Rich David?

MR : Just to go slow and I just hope he takes a good look at everything we’re doing, realizes we can do it with the size workforce we have, but if he starts cutting too much more out to fund a few more police officers, you’ll either have to raise taxes or you won’t get the kinds of things done that we’ve been doing. He seems to have defined basics as police, fire and roads. Those are the basics, but if you don’t do things to improve your neighborhoods, if you don’t look for every way to clean up as much blight as possible, if you don’t get your community members involved and keep your youth engaged – he talked about cutting the Youth Bureau. That would be a big mistake in my mind. You have to have a moral compass. If you think you’ve really made good decisions in going forward, you continue to go forward. Not to say you don’t listen to anybody, but you’re always going to take criticism from different people. I think Rich is a smart guy, but a vision that isn’t just about basics because basics will leave you at a standstill.

ME : You had talked about the importance of having a strong moral compass. Was there a time when you felt that you were strongly following your own moral compass and you got a lot of flack for that.

MR : Almost everything I’ve done. That’s what I pride myself in is that I follow my moral compass and I tried to never waver from that. It all has to do with how my parents brought me up and how it all has to do with fairness. I believe in fairness. I believe in everybody being treated respectfully. That’s what it really comes down to. If you have an idea that things should be fair and that you challenge things that make it not fair. And I’ve challenged a number of things that I don’t think are fair, all through my career. People will tell you I was a very zealous public defender. And if I saw something I didn’t think was right, I would fight very hard to make sure it was considered in the process. And that’s the same way I try to do everything. That’s the same way I try to do everything. I think it goes back to the cost of war clock, fighting fracking, all those things people say I shouldn’t be involved in. All those things are part of my moral compass and I’m proud of them.

ME : What are you feeling about leaving office?

MR : I didn’t have $700 million like Mayor Bloomberg to get myself another term. But, you know, I knew it was coming. I wish I could’ve run for another term, but I can’t. Because of all the stuff we went through with the recession, now we’re finally coming out of it. We finally have some stability to our finances, it would be fun to be mayor for another four years and see through a lot of the projects we’ve started and keep the momentum going.