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Powers' Outage at City Hall 

by Robert Herold

The most recent flap down at City Hall -- Mayor John Powers' decision to abolish the jobs of two longtime city employees without any consultation with members of the City Council -- calls to mind Richard Neustadt's book Presidential Power, a reported favorite of JFK. Neustadt made the deceivingly simple argument that presidential power is "the power to persuade." While presidents can and do issue what Neustadt termed "self-executing orders," power comes not by issuing orders so much as it comes from the skilled use of political capital to persuade others to seek the same goal. Quite to the contrary, the weak president is the president who relies on giving orders to the point that political capital is completely spent. Powers might want to check out Neustadt's book.

It seems that Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers went public with the mayor's intentions. "Unprofessional" is the word they are using to chastise her. But they miss the point, the point that Neustadt tries to make. Specifically, they fail to understand that Rodgers, as an elected member of the council, should not be expected to hold herself hostage to the mayor's agenda.

Yet the Mayor and his administrator, Jack Lynch, express dismay that Rodgers acted less as a member of the City Hall team and more like a free agent. Rodgers seized on a time and place of her choosing to make her point. She probably calculated that doing so would help her defeat the mayor's plan. She likely decided that were she to wait until the "professionals" wrapped up the deal, she would lose the political advantage.

Powers and Lynch seek to hermetically seal and label as "administrative" what amounts to a political decision. Rodgers' business is policy, and policy is political, thus, she seeks to challenge the mayor's plans, albeit through the rigged back door of public opinion. Her behavior is not surprising; that the mayor didn't see it coming -- that's surprising.

And this brings us back to Neustadt. He would point out to the mayor that distinctions between administration and policy are only operative so long as he can maintain political support. Unless he is able to persuade members of the council to act otherwise, he could find his entire administration viewed and treated as if it is entirely political.

In this case, the mayor and his staff attempted to skirt a policy issue that Rodgers raises. This was a budget matter, they say. But surely they know that the budget -- the mayor's budget -- is the most political of all government documents? Through the budget, the mayor establishes his priorities and proposes that the council support them, too. And here, once again, we run headlong into the need to persuade.

While consultation with Rodgers might, from time to time, prove helpful, the truth is she opposes the mayor on almost every front. Her voting record shows an astronomically high positive correlation with Steve Eugster's voting record. Okay, so the mayor can't count on two votes -- three on most issues, as Steve Corker often joins Rodgers and Eugster. And to the extent that these two members of the council oppose his policies regardless of any argument he might make, they may well have forfeited their privilege to be cut in. We can be less concerned with Rodgers' leak to the press than we are with the reaction of Roberta Greene, who usually votes with the mayor. That the mayor didn't even see fit to ring her into his plans is very inept.

Consider how this issue would be playing right about now if the mayor had managed to persuade a majority of the council to support his plan? In the process of trying to persuade his usual following to follow, he might face resistance. And perhaps it would have been the case that this resistance would not yield. At that point, a "strong" mayor (as opposed to a Big-S, "Strong" mayor) would have backed off and tried another approach. Powers and Lynch would, of course, face a negotiation full of quids, pros and quos, but by the time that the not-so-loyal opposition weighed in, he would have been able to count on a majority of the council giving him much-needed political support.

Instead, he has spent more political capital and received nothing in return -- except for more bad press.

You can comment on this at [email protected]

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