It’s time for Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton to hit the road.

That’s precisely what some of his peers in other cities are already doing.

That’s because these mayors are looking for new ways to recharge their batteries, to inspire their thinking, to set their agendas and frankly, to steal some good ideas.

Two Reasons

In Mayor Herenton’s case, this kind of trip could be valuable for two reasons.

One, if he does run for reelection, he needs to find some new ideas, articulate a new agenda and demonstrate new energy.

Two, it gives him a way to gauge the depths of his own interest.

After all, these days on his best days, Mayor Herenton looks like he’s on automatic pilot, and on his worst days, he looks like he’s just not interested.

Firing Up Interest

In politics, there’s no substitute for fire in the belly, and in visits to other cities, Mayor Herenton could find out if there’s anything left that can motivate a higher level of engagement on his behalf. More to the point, if he’s not interested in visiting with other mayors to learn from the best, he should come face to face with an unmistakable conclusion – he just shouldn’t be running.

Mayor Herenton could begin by emulating new mayor of Washington, D.C., Adrian Fenty. He’s been visiting other mayors for months, and already, he’s borrowed the idea of mayoral takeover of public schools and bullpen offices from Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City, the “CitiStat” system used by former Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley (now Maryland governor), the affordable housing initiative by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and the customer-friendly permits office created by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa.

Old Dog, New Tricks

If Mayor Herenton thinks that a freshly-minted mayor is not a role model for him, he could consider Mayor Newsom. Although he’s mayor of one of the world’s great cities, he made a trip to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley for new ideas and inspiration.

As a result, he’s set contemporary design as a priority, finding motivation from Millennium Park (one of the few parks that really lives up to the overused descriptor, world-class), and environmental responsibility, citing Chicago’s accomplishments in city greening.

Once home, Mayor Newsom issued a directive for all city buildings to meet standards of sustainable development, for an accelerated permit process for green buildings and he appointed his own director of green strategies for city government.

Learning Journey

His learning journey to Chicago says volumes about the value of an intellectually curious mayor. It would be easy for Mayor Newsom to say that San Francisco is a great city and leave it at that, but instead, he returned to his hometown with a new emphasis on civic vitality of all things. Even more, he said that Chicago is a “model” for what San Francisco should be.

“When you walk the streets of Chicago, it enlivens the spirit,” said Mayor Newsom. “The intangibles are evoked. There’s a spirit of pride and community.” Those are pretty strong words to be uttered by anyone from the city by the bay, much less its mayor, but he added: “We in San Francisco could learn an enormous amount from (Mayor Daley).”

He’s right to be impressed. From the snickers elicited when Mayor Daley invoked the name of Martha Stewart for his newfound interest in landscaping the city in 1996, Chicago has evolved a green consciousness that includes 73 miles of landscaped medians, a green roof on City Hall and 200 other buildings covering 2.5 million square feet (more than the rest of the U.S. combined), hundreds of miles of bike paths, hundreds of thousands of flowers and a green building construction code.

Just Do It

In addition, Mayor Daley’s “just do it” approach to government, rather than a consensus-building process, should appeal to Mayor Herenton. But the ultimate lesson is this: if a city like San Franciso has a need to search for innovative ideas, then surely it’s absolutely mandatory for a city like Memphis.

In Washington, Mayor Fenty entered office with the healthy notion that just because he was elected, it didn’t mean that he had all the answers. Reading a Time article about the best city mayors – O’Malley, Bloomberg, Daley, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and Atlanta’s Shirley Franklin – Mayor Fenty decided that there are things to learn from the best.

That’s just what he did. And along the way, he learned about more than good programs and sound policies. He says he also gained insights about how the best decisions are made, even in midst of a crisis.

Learning From The Best

As for a must-see city government, Mayor Herenton should begin with Baltimore, a city with similar demographics and problems. There, Mayor O’Malley took New York City Police Department’s highly successful computerized Comstat program and invented a system called CitiStat, a computer-driven system that analyzes the performance of every city agency.

As a result, with good reason, Baltimore became destination for pilgrims from City Halls across the U.S. Using the CitiStat program, Mayor O’Malley turned the Baltimore bureaucracy inside out and in the process invented a new way of managing a major urban government.

Using exhaustive data on every function of city government, the mayor and his staff attacked managers for unmet goals, redtape and a culture of excuses. In a war room reminiscent of a set for 24, the emphasis was on creative problem-solving and results.

Starting Anew

Best of all, CitiStat blew up a culture of cronyism and corruption and replaced it with performance-based systems that are in essence constituent services writ large.

One final note on Mayor Fenty: his visit to Mayor Bloomberg led him to copy the bullpen concept that the New York mayor transplanted from Wall Street to City Hall. In Washington, Mayor Fenty now sits near the center of a large, open room surrounded by 30 staff members.

Of course, in the end, the verdict on whether Mayor Fenty’s trips pay dividends will not come in headlines about new office layouts or new policies. Rather, the verdict comes from his ability to make government more entrepreneurial, efficient and customer-oriented.

A Better Way

Of course, these are motivations that work as well for a mayor in office for 16 years as for six months, and that’s why we wish that Mayor Herenton would pick up some frequent flyer mileage in the next few weeks.

As the Young Turk in the D.C. mayor’s office says: “If we’re happy judging the city against the old city government and saying how far we’ve come, that’s limiting our potential. Why not go out and find out if there’s a better way?”