After Billy Barlow was elected mayor in November 2015 and set to take office as the youngest municipal executive in New York, there were doubters about his ability to lead.
Readers, I must self-report here: I was one of them.
The city of Oswego is a $45 million corporation. There was no way a one-term city councilor whose most notable accomplishment to date was winning the election that put him in office could handle the demands of the job — let alone advance some kind of benevolent agenda. Barlow’s cheerful demeanor and polished campaign performance must belie either a dangerous naivety or sinister opportunism. Right?
It was a mild surprise but certainly not a shock to the newsroom of The Palladium-Times when it became apparent that Port City Democrats would not support a challenger in the upcoming Nov. 5 election. Barlow’s 2015 defeat of Democrat Amy Tresidder was decisive but not a blowout — a motivated candidate could have made 2019 a real race.
An unopposed Barlow is now likely to win his second four-year term.
He’s earned it.
The Palladium-Times is located at 140 W. 1st St., sandwiched between the former Office Tavern and Stone’s Candy Shop to the north and the Cellar Door brewery to the south. From here, we’ve had a front-row view to some of the most ambitious and successful city-community projects undertaken under the Barlow administration.
The Cahill Building. The Buckhout-Jones Building and Children’s Museum of Oswego. Water Street Square. The downtown Bridge Street improvements. The demolition of Global Buffet to make room for a new, actually useful multi-use structure. Construction isn’t always pleasant to live and commute through, but it’s undeniable that downtown Oswego progress was a Barlow priority and one on which he’s followed through.
Let’s take a moment and pump the brakes, though: Barlow is not, of course, singularly responsible for all those construction projects or the city’s uncommonly calm Common Council. Barlow’s administration, and the city at large, owe a debt to former Mayor Tom Gillen, who took over in 2011 facing millions of dollars in revenue deficit and a neglected infrastructure. Gillen’s sole term didn’t always produce popular decisions but it set up Barlow for the financial stability to keep taxes steady or, as in 2018, dip and it was under Gillen’s leadership that the seeds of many of the city’s now-fruitful grant and investments were planted. (Full disclosure: I married one of Gillen’s daughters.)
Barlow stepped into an opportune situation his first day in office but still faced his share of challenges: a $1 million budget deficit in the 2017 budget manifested in cuts to visible and valuable services and personnel. The Oswego Fire Department and hundreds of supporters marched on city hall to protest the layoff of more than a dozen firefighters.
That first difficult year gave way to Barlow aggressively implementing his vision for a rejuvenated Oswego. Terms like that are thrown around liberally when politicians describe how they see the future of their constituiency or district but in Barlow’s case, the fiscal, political and bureaucratic pieces snapped into place.
First: it helps when, in a mayor-council system like the Oswego city government, both the mayor and council are rowing in the same direction if not lock-step as this administration’s has been. Since 2017, Republicans have controlled six of the seven council seats and Barlow’s council leaders, President Rob Corradino and Vice President Kevin Hill, have been active and vocal supporters of Barlow’s agenda. Oswego Common Councils in past terms have been riddled by bitter division and in some cases, councilors jumping ship from one party to another depending on how the winds were blowing. Barlow’s success working within the council’s parameters is as much a tribute to his shrewd political operation as it is an indictment of local Democrats, however. At least this year, Dems are mounting spirited campaigns to contest council seats.
With a supportive council, advantageous fiscal positioning and motivated supporter base that stayed with him long after he took office, Barlow had the bully pulpit and he has used it. The Code Enforcement offices were beefed up with much fanfare from city hall, following through on another campaign promise. The 2019 city budget contained a 2 percent tax cut and in 2020, the city’s $45.2 million budget was its lowest since 2016. The amount of the 2019 tax cut was less significant than the symbolism it carried when rolled out — again, with much celebration and self-congratulation. Barlow’s seeming statement to taxpayers was: “listen, we know it’s been rough — but things are getting better.”
The Barlow administration is certainly not perfect and we here at The Palladium-Times promise to you, our readers, that we’ll continue to cover the mayor and Common Council aggressively and thoroughly. That is one of the fundamental duties of your daily newspaper: to keep your officials accountable and your tax dollars counted.
According to the Oswego city charter, mayors cannot serve in excess of two four-year terms. That would make Barlow, effectively, a lame duck from the moment he re-takes his oath of office on Jan. 1, 2020 but where that term carries a particularly negative connotation, we’re confident Barlow won’t be content to let the efforts of his first four years in office simply collect interest while waiting for his successor.
To that point, a personal anecdote:
This weekend, the city is holding its “Creepy Crawl” along the west linear riverwalk. It’s an entirely charming Halloween-themed block party and clearly, an extreme effort went into its planning and execution. I took my son, a Kingsford Park third-grader, on Friday and we had a blast. I couldn’t help thinking, as we walked through the haunted house and marveled at the skeletal horse-drawn carraige , that the city didn’t have to do this. There’s no other reason except it’s a nice, fun thing. And gosh darn it, I will fight and die on the hill of “more nice, fun things in the world.”
The Palladium-Times does not, per policy, endorse candidates for election. We will say this: Billy Barlow is set to win his second term as Oswego mayor and he’s earned it.
Seth Wallace is the editor of The Palladium-Times. He lives in the city of Oswego.