How a mayor set out to save a Sicilian city from neglect and Mafia influence.
Note: This article is an abridged version of three longer historical case studies about Palermo (about reclaiming the city, reforming city hall, and strengthening municipal services) produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.
In 1993, Palermo residents elected Leoluca Orlando mayor with 75 percent of the vote. A series of assassinations of high-level anti-Mafia leaders had left the city reeling, and Orlando’s election affirmed that voters wanted him to continue policies he had begun during his first mayoral term in the 1980s: To purge the government of Mafia influence and to help restore Palermo’s cultural and economic vibrancy. By the time Orlando (shown in the photo above) left office in 2000, his administration had collaborated with civil society and business leaders to reclaim the city by creating public spaces, improving services, and promoting a "culture of legality." Although subsequent city administrations abandoned or rolled back many of the reforms, Orlando’s administration from 1993 to 2000 helped define and lead what is known as the "Palermo Renaissance."
Reviving Palermo was a formidable task. For decades, the Sicilian Mafia held a strong political, cultural, and physical grip on the city, while city mayors either tolerated or assisted Mafia activity. Violence was endemic. Orlando initially entered politics in 1980 when the Mafia assassinated his boss, Sicilian President Piersanti Mattarella. Known for his anti-Mafia stance, Orlando required multiple bodyguards protecting him at all hours. Palermo had approximately 100 Mafia-related assassinations per year, not counting disappearances. Sicily’s killing peak was in 1991, when there were 718 Mafia-related murders, accounting for 37.5 percent of the total number of murders committed in Italy that year.
Against this backdrop of violence, the city was hobbled by a host of critical challenges. City spaces such as parks, historic buildings and squares, theaters, monuments, and schools were either dilapidated or owned by Mafia-affiliated groups. An urban plan written in 1963 (by politicians aligned with Mafia interests) deliberately deferred urban maintenance, so that new, large, and lucrative building projects would be contracted to construction firms with ties to organized crime.
Concurrent with the dilapidation of public spaces was the decline of Palermo’s arts and cultural life. The Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s once-elegant opera house, was a searing emblem of this deterioration. The opera house was shuttered in 1974 for "urgent repairs" as city officials awarded a multimillion-dollar renovation contract to a Mafia-affiliated company; the repairs were never carried out. By 1993, 60 to 70 percent of Palermo’s 240 historic buildings were in decay. There were no thriving cafés, common spaces, pizzerias, bars or shopping centers. Without a cultural base, public life waned and crime peaked.
As a result of rampant organized crime, economic and touristic activity also suffered: Businesses were wary of investing in Palermo because the rule of law was uncertain and government workings were opaque. The state of education was similarly dismal. Deteriorating school buildings necessitated that classes be convened in private buildings, many of which were Mafia controlled. High dropout rates — up to 40 percent in poor and Mafia-controlled neighborhoods — created another barrier to expansion of the formal economy.
Moreover, city government was rife with inefficiency and mismanagement; nepotism and patronage, rather than skills and talents, determined who ran the city. Orlando noted that, before him, every Palermo mayor save one had had affiliations with Mafia bosses — and the lone exception was a Mafiosi himself. Municipal offices lacked adequate records, and information retrieval was difficult and time-consuming. City finances were in shambles. Citizen disaffection mounted as city services verged on collapse. Garbage and trash lined the streets of the city. Natural gas for cooking and heating was available only intermittently, and public buses rarely ran on time. The municipality rationed water during the day.
Orlando started by appointing a talented team of commissioners and municipal company leaders with strong professional credentials to tackle the city’s ills. He emphasized qualifications over connections when assembling his team, and commissioners had to be free of Mafia affiliation. The team worked to fulfill Orlando’s campaign pledge of a "safe and normal city." Mafia influence and corruption were tightly woven into Palermo’s government and culture; the job was to disentangle the two. Cosimo Scordato, a Roman Catholic priest and anti-Mafia activist in Palermo, described the mayor’s thinking: "Orlando wanted people to think Palermo was a normal city and functioned like a normal city, one that did not work through clientelistic networks [and] where you don’t have to call friends or neighbors to pay bills or get the buses to run or turn on the lights. That’s a true antidote to the Mafia — to make the city work by itself."
Historically, Sicily has been known for its ornate, two-wheeled, horse-drawn carts — a bit of local folklore that Orlando seized upon to describe his governing philosophy: "An image that occurred to me early in my own fight against the Mafia was of a cart with two wheels, one law enforcement, and the other culture," Orlando said. "If one wheel turned without the other, the cart would go in circles. If both turned together, the cart would go forward." Italian courts and police began cracking down harder on the Mafia during this period, so Orlando claimed primary responsibility for the cultural wheel.
Reclaiming Palermo from the Mafia meant rehabilitating public spaces, arts and cultural activities, opportunities for entrepreneurship and tourism, and schools. Such investments would help restore a sense of community or civic identity, foster business confidence and job creation, enhance public safety, and help reduce the criminal network’s revenue streams.
Spearheading a culture of legality meant cutting relations with the Mafia at every turn. Orlando’s team did this in part by adopting hiring and bidding practices aimed at limiting nepotism, patronage, and collusion, and by making their opposition to the Mafia clear and public. In addition, the members of his government made themselves easily accessible to citizens by engaging in frequent dialogue with civil society and religious groups, as well as scholarly and business communities. Orlando and his team also borrowed ideas liberally, pushing company heads and commissioners to learn from other parts of Italy and Europe, and importing innovations that would make Palermo comparable to other well-run European cities.
A number of initiatives were advanced to enact the vision of a "safe and normal city." Orlando commissioned a restoration plan for Palermo’s historic city center to counteract the physical decay of the city. To pay for these projects, his administration attracted many European grants and also used national, regional, and city funding. Important public spaces were no longer in the hands of the Mafia, and illegal construction subsided. Led by the Historic City Center Commission, the government renovated or reacquired 158 churches, 400 old buildings, 55 monasteries, and seven theaters, many of which had been marked for demolition — the most notable of the Commission’s projects was the restoration of the Teatro Massimo. Orlando’s administration supported many other cultural improvements, such as restoring a 16th-century Gothic church, creating a new cultural and performing arts center, and organizing a series of open-air concerts, called Café Concerto. The concerts were extremely popular and attracted thousands of residents onto Palermo’s streets at night, bolstering the administration’s progress in "taking back" the city after dark.
The administration’s education reforms focused on moving classrooms out of Mafia-owned property and strengthening the curriculum to enhance students’ and parents’ civic consciousness and city pride. In one innovative program, "Adopt a Monument," students received "adoption" certificates for each monument they agreed to restore and maintain. Students interviewed local experts and residents about the monuments’ histories, designed brochures, produced videos about the monuments, and offered tours. More than 25,000 students adopted 160 churches, castles, public and private historic sites, villas, towers, schools, cemeteries, theaters, railway stations, private chapels, fortresses, parks, fountains, streets, and neighborhoods. By the time Orlando’s administration ended, about 60 percent of the monuments had been restored and reopened, and 20 percent were under restoration.
To bolster tourism — and thereby encourage economic growth — the city’s team of commissioners created new coalitions with Palermo’s private sector to highlight native crafts. The transportation commissioner also worked to improve parking availability, bus routes, taxi lanes, and to install credit card machines in taxis. City officials lobbied shops to expand their hours of operation, improved pedestrian-only zones in the city, and renovated public beaches. Finally, the commissioner for tourism forged alliances with tour operators, cruise liners, and airlines, encouraging them to view Palermo as a destination rather than a byway to other locales. From 1993 to 1999, the number of foreign tourists more than doubled.
To clean up the administration in city hall, Orlando cut the Mafia out of government transactions, transitioning from norms of secrecy and bribery to norms of transparency, accessibility, and respect for rules. He opened the doors to city hall and gave citizens his personal phone number. His commissioners held public meetings and also created special forums where citizens could scrutinize the city budget (and ask questions about it). City records were computerized, which allowed the administration to begin reforming financial procedures, such as creating a one-stop shop for business licenses. The new system managed to eliminate a multi-year backlog of license applications.
Orlando also worked to turn around the four municipal companies that provided the city with waste disposal, natural gas delivery, public transportation, and water, which suffered from a combination of inefficiency, structural defects, and sometimes outright abuse. For each company, Orlando appointed presidents with strong professional credentials who in turn hired people with specialized skills in order to boost internal technical capacity. They worked to change corporate culture in their companies, instituted yearly planning to cut down on wasteful emergency purchases, established comprehensive cost-monitoring to enhance financial decision-making, created clear job designations to spur accountability, and cracked down on illegal usage of services by citizens.
Company presidents also invested in infrastructure and durable goods: For example, the gas company invested in a new, energy-efficient methane gas network and the transportation company doubled the number of city buses, buying new electric or hybrid buses. By the end of Orlando’s term in 2000, provision of transportation, natural gas, water, and waste management services had become reliable, accessible, and cost-efficient. Palermo could now be said to resemble Orlando’s vision of a "safe and normal city."
In 2000, Moody’s Investors Service assigned Palermo its first Aa3 rating, putting the city on a par with Barcelona, San Francisco, and Stockholm in creditworthiness. The positive rating was attributed to an improved city administration, high revenues, and low debt during the second half of the 1990s. The new technology in municipal offices, the one-stop shop for business start-ups, better hiring practices, transparency in budget, and improvements in assessing and collecting taxes all had contributed to a vastly improved investor forecast.
Palermo’s renaissance was noticed and emulated by others as well, especially the Adopt a Monument program and one-stop shop. Delegations traveled to the city to learn lessons from the Palermo Model. Orlando and several of his commissioners shared success stories at conferences throughout Europe, and aspects of the Palermo model were adapted in Colombia, Mexico, and Georgia. In 2000, Palermo was chosen as the city to host representatives from 143 countries for a conference of the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime.
In 2000, with a year remaining in his term, Orlando resigned as mayor to run for president of the autonomous region of Sicily (an election he lost to Salvatore Cuffaro, who was later convicted and jailed for aiding and abetting the Mafia). Most of the commissioners and managers resigned with him. Many of the remaining key personnel were dismissed by the succeeding administration. Although some improvements stuck, many initiatives faltered under the new leadership. Diego Cammarata — a top aide to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — succeeded Orlando as mayor. During Cammarata’s tenure from 2001 to 2012, the political culture shifted. Palermo lost its Aa3 rating, and by 2012, city hall was no longer an efficient and accessible institution. Public services declined considerably as garbage piled up on the streets because of striking employees. The garbage and transportation companies were once again in dire financial straits. The Adopt a Monument program lost momentum, and the Café Concerto series ended.
Some blamed Orlando’s early departure for the lack of sustainability, while others blamed his administration for not taking more steps to institutionalize the reforms and nurture a next generation of leaders. Franco Nicastro, a journalist and anti-Mafia activist, cited lack of sustainability as a critical problem: "[Orlando] started the new process, but he wasn’t able to carry it out to the end… He built a new administration locally. He gave us hope, but then the most difficult part wasn’t completed." And although during Orlando’s term the Mafia shifted strategy away from high-profile violence, it still continued to operate.
In January 2012, Cammarata resigned as mayor in the midst of several investigations of fraud and abuse of office. Orlando ran again, and in June of 2012, began his fourth term as Palermo’s mayor after receiving 72 percent of the votes in a run-off election.