The Strange Saga of the Ousted Mayor of Bogotá
Bogotá is an urban policy "miracle," moving from failure to case study in just 20 years. The Colombian capital has become known internationally for it innovative municipal initiatives prioritizing civic culture, public transportation, public spaces, and creative social programs. Bogotá's transformation has been led by strong figures like former Mayor Antanas Mockus, who mooned a university auditorium and invented traffic mimes and "violence vaccines." His successor, Enrique Peñalosa, is a public transportation champion who created the one of the world's largest Bus Rapid Transit systems.
So it's a strange state of affairs indeed that current Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro received a political "death sentence" last week: impeachment, courtesy Colombia Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez, and a 15-year ban on holding public office after he botched the roll-out of an overhauled trash collection scheme that allegedly violated the country's commerce regulations.
Yes, Petro's sin was attempting to replace a private trash collection system with a public one. The organizing principle behind the scheme was to start formally paying the hundreds of indigent Bogotá families who make a living digging through garbage for recyclables. Alas, the program's implementation was a poorly orchestrated fiasco, and trash literally piled up in the streets over the first three days. According to the Inspector General, the mayor’s actions endangered the health of Bogotá's citizens. (For the sake of a health comparison, Madrid recently endured two weeks of a garbage collector strike.)
It’s worth noting that despite that bumpy start, a modified version of the original program, using both public and private companies, is now picking up Bogota’s trash. Clearly it’s not only about actual rubbish.
But, convoluted Colombian partisan politics aside, the fall-out from this episode could be important for Bogotá's future.
Public policy is not a hard science. It is, in many ways, about experimentation. Results are rarely clear-cut, programs succeed on some metrics but fail at others. Sadly, there are no silver bullets; most policies have incremental effects. They're not set in stone, either. They can be modified, improved or scrapped. It is hardly reasonable – nor institutionally feasible – to kick out a mayor every time a well-intentioned program fails to immediately have its intended impact.
Notably, the same inspector general also sanctioned Bogotá's previous mayor, Samuel Moreno, who has been accused on far more serious corruption charges. But in that case, Ordóñez barred Moreno from public office for only one year.
Petro is now in Washington, D.C., lobbying the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In the past week, both the U.S. ambassador and the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights in Colombia voiced concern. The next step is a review by the Colombian Prosecutor General, who could overrule the decision. The appeals process will go on into the new year — Petro’s legal team has already filed over 500 complaints to the Constitutional Court.
Further muddying the situation, local election authorities on Wednesday announced a citizen referendum to recall the mayor. The new effort is not tied to Ordóñez's banning decree, and if the ban is upheld, a February recall vote won't matter. Still, if it does go ahead, at least it will be a chance for the citizens to make their own leadership choices, which is likely why Petro is now backing the notion of a referendum against himself.
If the dismissal is ultimately confirmed, the future of local government innovation in Bogotá is clearly in danger. It's too easy to imagine well-intentioned scenarios gone wrong: The construction of the next branch of the TransMilenio BRT might run over budget, social programs might not meet their targets. What if traffic mimes give children nightmares? Negative results should be debated by the public, pilloried in the press and evaluated at the polls. But they're also an inevitable part of improving a city.
Demonstrators protest against the decision to remove Petro from his post at Bogota's Bolivar Square. (John Vizcaino/Reyters)
Colombia reformed its political system in the late 1980s, allowing cities to elect their own mayors for the first time. Bogotá’s executive seat became the second most important electoral position in the country, after the presidency. It’s no coincidence that Bogotá’s transformation started soon after.
The tens of thousands of people gathered in Bogota’s central square protesting the inspector general's decision think that the man they elected to govern them deserves to stay. Many others feel that he doesn't. They should all get to choose their mayor and – barring illegal behavior – see them serve their full terms.
Top image: Demonstrators protest against the decision to remove Petro from his post at Bogota's Bolivar Square. The sign reads, "Toxic waste, not recyclable." (John Vizcaino/Reyters)