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In Their Shoes

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

There are days when, as a mayor, I feel discouraged. It might be in response to a resident who vents frustration at me or it may be criticism, whether warranted or not. Regardless, there’s always a need for perspective. For me on any given day, it’s almost always about potholes or budgets, trash collection or taxes or Code Blue, to name a few. But I have the luxury of being a mayor here in Bridgeton, in Cumberland County, in New Jersey, in the United States of America.

Being a mayor in other places isn’t so easy. Consider what it’s like to be the mayor of the Ukrainian town of Motyzhyn, as Olha Sukhenko was back in March when the Russians invaded. As the news of the invasion came close she likely contemplated leaving, and may well have been warned to do so. For whatever her reasons, she remained in her community with her people and for that she was summarily executed along with her family.

When the smoke clears on this war, my guess is that there will be more of these stories, of brave men and women who chose to remain and exert whatever leadership they might on behalf of their residents. I cannot imagine the choice, nor can I imagine the anguish these people carried with them for themselves, their families, and their townspeople.

If you’ve been following the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you’ve seen news reports of Russian soldiers going from house to house looking to identify local officials—mayors, the Ukrainian equivalent of a City Councilperson, and other municipal officials that run the local government—for the express purpose of killing them, to make examples of them and to instill fear in the local populace.

Imagine yourself in some similar position in municipal government or on the level of a county commissioner. Would you stay? Would you admit to being an elected official, a leader of the community? I’d like to think that I would, but I’d be lying if I said there was no shred of doubt. I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t strongly consider getting out of Dodge.

But there’s the other side of the coin, those who actually leave. Leaving comes with a whole different set of variables. For example, one local leader named Ihor Kostovarov, who was the head official in the towns of Staryi and Novyi Bykiv, simply got up and left when he received the news about the house-to-house searches being conducted by Russians to find local officials. Given the level of anger on the part of those residents who remained behind, it is not at all clear that he can ever come back.

Perhaps worse than leaving are those local officials who decide to collaborate with the Russians to save their own skin. Remember what they did to Nazi collaborators, both men and women, after WWII? I can only imagine that a similar fate awaits those local officials in Ukraine who collaborate with the enemy against their own communities.

Then there is the opposite of collaboration, known as resistance. The mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, remained in his community and refused to work with the Russians. For his part, he was held captive for over a week and was no doubt beaten. He was only spared as part of a larger prisoner exchange. When asked about it after the fact, he said it was important that the residents knew beyond any doubt that any Russian rule was only by force and therefore not legitimate.

Now that’s leadership to aspire to.

Mayoral Musings