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Strong mayor will be less powerful than present ‘weak mayor’

Thu, Oct 21, 2010

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If the “strong mayor” initiative passes on Nov. 2, there may be an unforeseen consequence or two.

Some observations:

Money talks, everything else walks. In 1991, I managed to get elected to city council by spending a then-unprecedented $9,000 on a decidedly amateurish campaign. I made my own TV spots, designed my own posters and stapled ‘em to wooden stakes! Handed out silly little flyers that I wrote, bought two new suits (with my own money, not campaign contributions) and tried to look like a gen-yoo-wine community leader! And today? The last developers standing (David and Chris Jenkins) spend more than $500k to put a complex charter amendment before the voters. That sum, enormous as it may seem, will be dwarfed by the money that will pour into next April’s election.

Do David, Chris and the scores of serious folks who have endorsed/contributed to “the Mayor Project” have a follow up plan? Or did they just toss away a few hundred grand with nothing but a hope and a prayer?

My guess is that they’ve already settled on a smart, serious person whom they’ll support as mayor – and I suspect that they have a few folks in mind for city council as well.

As structured, the initiative essentially splits city government into two separate entities.

The mayor runs the city, but has little power over land use issues (arguably the most important task of city government), absent a concurring majority on city council. The new structure puts council in charge of city enterprises, most notably Colorado Springs Utilities. Given that CSU policy/governance issues are often far more important than city issues, it’s a curious and unreasonable change.

What’s more important: Hiring, firing, and bossing around a few dozen senior city employees, or making decisions about billion-dollar water delivery systems, hundred-million dollar power plants, and utility rates that will affect every business, resident and nonprofit in the city?

It doesn’t matter who the strong mayor is, if he/she has little power. It’s as if Obama had sent Petraeus to Afghanistan while withdrawing 70 percent of the troops.

The folks at the Mayor Project blame the city’s single subject ordinance for their woes, claiming that any change in CSU’s governance could only have been addressed in a separate initiative.

For the new ‘strong mayor’ to have any say over CSU, he/she will have to have a compliant council.

It’s possible that if the initiative passes, the folks behind the Mayor project will follow up with another one expanding the powers of the Mayor to include the city’s enterprises. It’s also possible that they’ll back a slate of council candidates who, in essence, promise to be yes-men and yes-women.

Neither effort is likely to succeed. Colorado Springs voters seem to like feisty, independent council members like Tom Gallagher, Cheryl Gillaspie, and Darryl Glenn – so a group of candidates who pledge to shelf their own judgment would likely be summarily rejected. A fresh initiative might be greeted with suspicion by distrustful voters – so we’ll most likely be stuck with our newly truncated municipal government.

Such opportunities for politicking, for power plays, for endless disputes, for deceptive, overfinanced campaigns … Chicago, he we come!

Maybe I should buy some new suits…

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5 Comments For This Post

  1. Lorne Kramer Says:

    John, you are absolutely on target. The old saying “follow the money” certainly applies in this situation. Our city has some issues that need to be fixed but changing our charter is not the solution. As imperfect as we are we have been free of machine-politics and patronage in city hall. The “Strong-Mayor” model will change that-and not for the better.

  2. Kevin Walker Says:

    John,

    We have made it so that you can follow the money with disclosure of where that money is coming from and with open discussion about why. No mock transparency.

    As to the single subject, look it up. I think it was passed when you were on Council to thwart amendments to the Charter like TABOR. It is Section 5.1.503. Wish it weren’t there or that we could ignore it like so many opponents of the now “weaker” mayor would apparently have preferred.

    And we do hope that there will be reason now to change some of the other things about City government that people have talked about but never do anything about, like redistricting and CSU governance. It can be done.

    And there is no plan for this group to do any other initiatives. Our commitment was to disband after this and scatter to other things. We will honor that commitment.

    The current mayor has 11% authority in land use decisions and utility decisions. Seems like less these days since there isn’t any land use going on and the Utility budget is mountains thick.

    But the elected Mayor will have authority over the budget development and submittal and can craft a budget that is tied to a vision voted on by a majority. And that is no small matter.

    The consistent discussion of a secret mayor candidate is old and tired. Ask around. Who is it? It’s a small enough town that you of all people would know.

    Why don’t you debate the specifics of our proposal, not what it might be or secretly is or in your opinion is not good enough? Is there some piece of it that we crafted wrong? Or is it just change that you are conerned about?

    It is simply a good first step.

  3. Justin Burns Says:

    John, you very eloquently describe how the sky maybe falling if Initiative 300 passes; however, you fail to deliver any real suggestions as an alternative. Apart from 300, what do you recommend that Colorado Springs do? If 300 passes, visions of Chicago might be in our future… yet, if it does not pass, some of us see visions that more resemble something like Pueblo. Give me more than just your opinion to chew on.

  4. John Hazlehurst Says:

    Kevin, it would take a long time to discuss 300′s merits/failings, since it’s not merely a minor tweak in city government, but a wholesale revision of the charter. It hasn’t received the kind of serious analysis & debate it deserves – and even if it had, any such debate would be drowned by the deep-pocketed masterfully slick and deceiving campaign that you’ve orchestrated. I suspect that it’ll pass, and then we’ll be stuck with a bizarre governmental structure that isn’t replicated by any other city in the country.

    And Justin, I’ve yet to hear, other than conjecturally, how this new structure will solve any of our problems. The problems that seem to agitate people today stem from the recession, the transient incompetence of a few elected officials, and the misapplied strength of Mayor Rivera. This “weak mayor” pushed through the USOC deal, SDS, and the Stormwater Enterprise? Those were the acts of powerful leader. It can be argued that Council should have questioned Rivera’s leadership, but it’s a testimony to his skilful use of an office that is not designed for the untrammeled exercise of power that he prevailed.

    The so-called strong mayor structure that voters may adopt in a couple of weeks may result in a contentious, ineffectual, and divided city government. We’ll see…

  5. Lynn Peterson Says:

    Dear John: Oh, ye of little faith, lighten up. “The people” do have the wherewithal and wisdom to propose and adopt additional amendments that might be needed to create “a more perfect” charter. The First Congress of the new American republic added ten important amendments a little over a year after the ratification of the Constitution. We still cherish those amendments, the Bill of Rights, and laud the fact that those first representatives understood the need to make amends after listening to the opposition during the ratification process. I am quite confident that the newly elected mayor and council is likely to do the same. We are Americans after all. If we make mistakes, we often seek to change things. Fundamentally speaking, I disagree with the worry warts, the doomsayers. The proposed new form of government is sound and filled with checks and balances. There is nothing in it that necessarily portends a weak mayor or machine politics. Lynn Peterson