Most mayors won’t face in their entire terms what John Brenner had to deal with in just his first week heading up the city of York, Pa.
Elected the youngest mayor in York history in 2001, Brenner took control of a city on the brink of disaster: His predecessor, Charlie Robertson, had just been indicted on murder charges stemming from a 1969 race riot. And though Robertson was later acquitted, the charges were enough to revive long-dormant racial divisions in the city.
York was in turmoil, and Brenner—who, at the time, was in the midst of completing his Master’s of Governmental Administration from Penn’s Fels Institute of Government—was left to fix it.
“It was a very emotionally charged time here in York,” recalls Brenner, now 39. “For me, it seemed to be an opportunity to step forward and serve at a critical time, as the city was dredging up all of these things from the past and dealing with all these demons from the 1960s.”
Six years later, things are looking up in York. And Brenner, while keeping up with his mayoral responsibilities, has finally found the time to return to Fels and finish up his MGA.
If all goes as planned, the two-term mayor will graduate this May.
“I had started the program before I became mayor,” explains Brenner. “I just wasn’t able to finish it because of the time commitment. After I was re-elected in 2005, one of my goals was to get back into the swing of things and finish the four courses I needed for my degree. I contacted the University, talked with [Fels director] Don Kettl and he said, ‘Sure, come on back.’”
If getting back into school was relatively easy, juggling both his coursework and mayoral duties hasn’t always been, Brenner says. Fels courses are challenging, and even real-life mayors are expected to do their statistics homework. Fortunately, Brenner says, the Fels courses have proven their worth, helping him tackle the real-life challenges of running York, a city of 41,000 located about an hour north of Baltimore.
“Some of the courses just flow very nicely into what I’m doing [as mayor],” Brenner says. “We had one course last semester on public finance. As somebody who has worked on five or six city budgets, it just really helped frame a lot of the financial struggles and issues we’ve been facing here.”
Brenner’s contributions to York have gone beyond solving its budget crisis. He has helped the city attract key construction projects, including a $24 million minor-league baseball stadium and a $15 million expansion of the Penn State University’s York branch campus. He’s also launched efforts to revitalize and promote the city’s neighborhoods and, in 2003, announced the York Unity initiative, designed to help reduce racial tensions.
“We got through the hate groups coming here,” he says. “We’re now at over $300 million in new economic development. The city is slowly but surely being revitalized as we bring in new businesses and promote our neighborhoods.”
Brenner’s efforts have earned him no small amount of acclaim.
Recently, he was sent to Indonesia by the U.S. State Department as part of a mission to help improve relations between U.S. and Indonesian local governments. The Pennsylvania Jaycees named Brenner the Outstanding Young Pennsylvanian in 2003 and, in 2005, he received the Governor’s Award for Local Government Excellence. Soon, he’ll add a Fels degree to the list.
“The great thing about Fels is that you’ve got top-notch people,” he says of his Fels experience. “The students may not all be mayors today, but they will be mayors and governors and policymakers well into the future. I’m honored to be part of the program, and just hope I’ve shared a few things along the way.”
Originally published on April 26, 2007