Less than a minute into a "Mayors Rule" panel discussion at Old South Church, where mayors from across the state had gathered Saturday to discuss how they wield power, the audience broke into a round of applause for Thomas M. Menino, former mayor of Boston.
The longest-serving mayor in the city's history should have been there, but two days after announcing he was stopping chemotherapy and other treatment for his inoperable cancer, he was forced to skip Saturday's panel, which centered around the ideas in the book "If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities."
"Mayor Menino would have added an awful lot to this conversation," said his successor, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who spoke at the panel. "I'm sure he would have felt that mayors rule the world anyway; there's no need for a book."
During the panel, which was part of the Boston Book Festival, the book's author, Benjamin R. Barber, laid out his theory that states are paralyzed in the face of problems like climate change, terrorism, guns, and poverty. Cities, which produce the majority of wealth and are home to the majority of people, are much better equipped to deal practically and effectively with these issues, he argued, and heads of cities should join in a world Parliament of Mayors to lead together.
"Cities are the quintessential human communities. They define our identity. They're where we're born, where we grow up, have our children, where we're educated, where we create and procreate and play and pray. Where we get old and where we die," said Barber. "And the people who choose with us to govern our cities . . . are pragmatists, problem solvers, and, above all, neighbors. You know them."
For some in the audience, the absence of Menino — a mayor who, polls showed, had personally met more than half of the city's residents face-to-face — was deeply felt. The "urban mechanic" was known as mayor for his attention to the minute details of city life — the potholes and the playgrounds — and the panel touched repeatedly on the critical importance of no-nonsense mayors who know how to keep the machinery of a city running, regardless of politics.
"This is part of his idea, of people working together and transcending partisan divides," said Jerome Maryon, who attended the panel. Though Menino did not get a chance to participate in the Parliament of Mayors, said Maryon, Boston's participation could be part of his legacy.
"That would be truly heartwarming," he said. "Any time you move the hearts and you move the minds, you truly accomplish something in politics."
Before the panel began, there were murmurs that Menino might make an appearance via video, but it did not happen. Mayor Dan Rivera of Lawrence and Mayor Lisa Wong of Fitchburg spoke along with Walsh and Barber, and Bob Oakes, host of WBUR's Morning Edition, moderated.
Smoki Bacon, a lifelong Boston resident who sat in the front row, said after the panel that she would have liked to hear Menino weigh in on potential pitfalls a Parliament of Mayors could face.
"When they said what their ambitions were down the line, he probably would have been very important in pointing out the problems he ran into," said Bacon. "He was a righteous man that wanted nothing but the best for the city [during his mayoral reign]."
In September, the Global Parliament of Mayors project, inspired by Barber's book, met in the Netherlands for a planning session, according to the project's website.
Menino, 71, canceled his appearance at the panel on Tuesday, according to an organizer.
"It's unfortunate he couldn't make it today, but he has to take care of his health, take care of his family. I wish he was here," said Walsh.