Judging from recent election results, a majority of Colorado Springs voters will support any reasonable measure to cure the city’s ills, as long as the measure doesn’t involve the dreaded “T” word.
That may be why a proposal to change the city’s form of government to the so-called “strong mayor” system has gotten so much traction.
A strong mayor must be better than a weak mayor, right? Strong bodies trump weak bodies, strong minds are better than weak ones, and strong teams win the Super Bowl while weak teams don’t even make the playoffs.
By putting a strong mayor in office, we’ll rebuild our city, put in a real CEO, and he/she will work miracles! Jack Walsh took GE, a faltering legacy manufacturer, and turned it into world-devouring powerhouse-so why can’t we find our own Jack (or Jill) Walsh and let him/her work wonders?
No more quarrelsome council, no more stubborn, unaccountable bureaucrats-we’ll get someone who will crack down on all those slackers and make the streetcars run on time!
That’s fine, I guess, but the city manager form of government has served us well for nearly a century, and, despite its obvious flaws, may be superior to a strong mayor system.
In our present form of government, the mayor has little statutory power. He/she presides over council meeting and has a vote and a voice, and that’s about it. Council is predominantly a policy-making body, with hire/fire authority over half a dozen appointees, including the Utilities director and the city manager.
The mayor is elected at large, and is seen as the city’s leader. To be effective, a mayor must be respected and trusted both by residents of the city and by his/her fellow members of council. Gaining such respect and trust isn’t easy, but many of our recent mayors have managed to do so.
It’s difficult to imagine that Bob Isaac and Mary Lou Makepeace could have been more powerful or more effective leaders in a different form of government. With sure political instincts, patience, intelligence, and generally supportive colleagues, they didn’t merely preside-they governed.
Yet both of them understood that they couldn’t govern without the affection and support of city residents.
By contrast, Mayor Lionel Rivera, although just as smart, savvy, and experienced as either of his illustrious predecessors, has stumbled badly – and not because of deficient leadership skills. Fairly or not, he bears responsibility for the unpopular USOC deal, for the Stormwater Enterprise, and for November’s failed property tax increase. A mayor more sensitive to the times, and to the quirks of our city, might have steered a different course.
A paid, full-time, “strong mayor” wouldn’t need either continuing popular support or the support of a majority of council to govern. Council would devolve into a mere legislative body, whose actions would be subject to the mayor’s veto. Such vetoes would require a supermajority of council members to override.
Elections, as we all know, are not easily predictable. Under the present system, there are enough checks and balances to prevent an eccentric or incompetent mayor from doing much damage. That wouldn’t be the case in a strong mayor system.
And I can easily imagine a scenario that would result in the election of a certain former elected official and activist as the city’s first strong mayor.
Say hello to Mayor Douglas Bruce!