When Greg Ballard, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, became mayor of Indianapolis in 2008, few people had any idea who he was, nor did they care. They were just glad to get rid of the “bum” in office, a man who had been honest in telling them he needed to raise their taxes to pay for police, prosecutors and jails.
Unfortunately for the city, Ballard has since given his deep-pocketed supporters free reign of City Hall, jets around the globe on taxpayer-funded junkets and broken his no-new-taxes pledge.
Critics will say he has been an unmitigated political disaster. More than a few of his friends will admit so, too.
Would it surprise you to know that Ballard — inarticulate, often appearing confused and lacking any charisma — is one of America’s “strong” mayors?
I doubt that those in favor of switching over to a strong-mayor system in Colorado Springs have heard of the Indianapolis mayor, let alone examined his record.
As a nation, our distrust of elected officials is at a fever pitch, so it’s interesting to see the push for a strong mayor bubble up just now. After all, the weak-mayor system is rooted in the belief that the less power we impart and greater number of checks we impose on politicians, the less damage they can do.
Still, with so much dissatisfaction in the current administration and council, it’s no wonder the idea of switching to a strong mayor is catching on. The notion certainly has its merits.
The mayor would inherit the city manager’s powers to hire and fire department heads, create a budget and set priorities.
Our current mayor has none of those powers.
At the same time, the strong-mayor system would inject into local government a federal-like separation of powers between the city’s legislative branch — the much-maligned council — and the equally-maligned executive — the mayor.
Those checks and balances would be new at City Hall, so even the strongest of mayors should expect an override from time to time.
The new mayor would be a full-time job with what we can presume will be a decent salary, so that might help draw a higher caliber of candidate.
There is a flip side here. Anyone with a memory can tell you we’ve had some fine mayors under the current system. Bob Isaac, for one, was terrific at the job. And as Ballard has shown, the strong-mayor approach doesn’t guarantee success.
What this means is that, ultimately, the difference comes down to who occupies the office.
Assuming voters in November agree to move away from the city manager model, they’ll be faced in the 2011 mayoral election with the same question that confronts voters in any race: which candidate is best for the job?
Obviously, we need someone who can pull Colorado Springs out of the funk it’s now in.
What qualifications and characteristics should we look for? At a minimum, we need someone who:
Won’t turn the mayor’s office into a place where ideology trumps all else. The mayor’s office is no place for political extremism. We don’t need mavericks to address basics such as keeping streets safe, parks clean and street lights working.
Has more than a passing understanding of how government functions. Dilettantes and political wannabes need not apply. This is a complex job, so let’s not waste time by putting someone in office who will consume years just getting up to speed.
Can be trusted to serve the interests of all, rather than the narrow few. (Ironically, cronyism and corruption are what drove many cities in the early 1900s to switch away from strong mayors, so I guess the pendulum has now swung back entirely.)
Can work with the council to promote his or her programs in a cooperative, rather than adversarial, fashion. It would be naïve to expect the council to simply roll over for the “strong” mayor. And if the council revolts under a tyrannical mayor, we could easily end up with a civil war.
Another Indianapolis mayor, the popular William H. Hudnut III, summed it up nicely:
“The mayor is the orchestra leader in a strong system of government,” he said. “A lot of people are playing different roles and he’s got to get them playing in harmony.”
So will having a strong-mayor system cure what’s ailing Colorado Springs?
Perhaps, though not unless whoever is elected puts the interests of voters ahead of all others, won’t allow the vocal, reactionary few to hijack our futures, is persuasive enough to win over recalcitrant council members and can earn the trust of a deeply cynical electorate.
Changing our form of government, in other words, will only be the start.
Allen Greenberg is the editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-329-5206.