Do we want a ‘strong mayor,’ second-class council?

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Imagine you’re a private in the military. You’re one of nine soldiers in your infantry squad, led by a sergeant.

You’re in some godforsaken part of an unfortunate Middle Eastern country, trying your best to control an Al Qaeda-based insurgency. Rank doesn’t matter. You endure the same dangers, eat the same food, and look out for each other. None of you get paid much. You’re volunteers protecting our historic freedoms. Unit cohesion isn’t just a phrase in a textbook, but literally a matter of life and death.

The military teaches many lessons, and unit cohesion is one of the most important. In any endeavor, whether in business, politics, the arts, or sports, the principals ought to share risks and responsibilities, and divide tasks equitably.

That’s why some of the changes in the City Charter proposed by Citizens for Accountable Leadership are deeply flawed.

The group suggests that the present city manager form of government be replaced by a strong mayor system. That may be a reasonable proposal, but the present draft outlines a structure which, if approved by the voters, would create more problems than it purports to solve.

Under the present system, the city’s policies and direction are determined by a nine-member city council, led by a popularly elected mayor.

Every council member, including the mayor, receives an annual “stipend” of $6,350.

The mayor runs the council meetings, and has a vote and a voice.

To lead, he must count upon not only the inherent power of his position as the elected mayor, but also upon his or her ability to command the respect and support of his colleagues and fellow citizens.

Like his peers, the mayor must sit through endless meetings, deal with the problems of constituents, function with a limited staff, and understand the manifold interactions of the city and its enterprises.

Like a squad leader, he or she is in the trenches, interacting every day with the rest of council, sharing equally in the small victories and large defeats that often characterize life as an elected official in Colorado Springs.

Successful mayors strive for and achieve unit cohesion.

The proposed structure removes the mayor entirely from council. The mayor becomes a kind of elected bureaucrat, without managerial duties. A chief of staff will function as a de facto city manager/chief operating officer, while the mayor will become the city’s CEO. That’s the way strong mayor systems work, and that’s OK. It’s the other part of the equation that’s out of kilter.

The mayor would get paid about $100,000 annually, while council members would continue to receive only $6,250.

The mayor would be relieved of all the scut work of representative government — no more endless meetings, no more helping to decide thorny land-use issues, no more dealing with pesky constituents, no more working full time for 75 cents an hour. Council would also be responsible for making policy for Colorado Springs Utilities and Memorial Hospital, relieving the mayor of yet another tiresome set of duties.

Mayor and council will no longer resemble an infantry squad. Imagine a unit whose commander is paid 15 times as much as the grunts, spends no time with them, never participates in an action, takes credit for their successes, condemns their failures, and spends much of his and her time hobnobbing with the powerful.

In Denver, where the strong mayor system has worked extremely well, council members are well compensated. They can devote full time to their constituents and to the job of being the city’s legislative body.

The tension between the executive and legislative branches of city government is healthy and normal, but that tension is only productive when both branches are playing by the same rules.

I suspect that the strong mayor folks have either decided that local voters would never agree to compensate both the mayor and city council members, or maybe they just don’t understand the peculiar dynamics of the mayor-council relationship. The strange hybrid that they’ve come up with will make positions on council less attractive to qualified residents, and institutionalize bitter conflict between mayor and council.

Council will have responsibility without authority. They’ll be second-class citizens, unloved, uncompensated and ignored.

That dynamic doesn’t work in the military or in business — and it won’t work in local government.

John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861.

One Response to Do we want a ‘strong mayor,’ second-class council?

  1. John,

    Your concerns are well taken. And it may be a needed reform. We have never said that our idea is the only idea; it is though a “good first step.” Not the only step, not a pancea. Just a start to straighten out a system that is broken.

    I have heard the comment (and I paraphrase) “let’s not pursuit of perfect be the obstacle to good progress.” Paying a Mayor half a City Manager’s salary with accountability directly to voters seems like a good step. Agree?

    Kevin Walker
    Director
    Citizens for Accountable Leadership

    Kevin Walker
    May 19, 2010 at 9:26 pm