by Robert Herold

In our region of the country, many cities are governed by a version of the strong-mayor form of government: Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and even such smaller cities in Oregon and Washington state such as Beaverton, Bremerton, Everett and Bellingham.

Most wound up there after trying one or more of the "reform" governments -- like the commissioner or council-manager systems. For example, Denver and Salt Lake City as well as Portland and Spokane previously had the commissioner form of government, wherein council members also ran departments. Other cities at one time or another made use of the council-manager form of government, as Spokane did for 40 years. Portland never actually abandoned the commissioner form of government, choosing instead to "modify" it so as to create a strong mayor position.

Each city has its own story -- but all, at one time or another, realized that political leadership must emerge. If we don't take on the political leadership by creating an office for it to reside in, we create a leadership vacuum to be filled by an ever-more-entrenched bureaucracy.

In truth, from the very beginning, the council-manager system rested on a number of myths that, over time and in combination with rapid urban growth and diversity of opinions, produced governmental dysfunction.

Myth: Cities are not political entities.

Reality: This is a bedrock mythology of the council-manager form of government, but it crumbles in the face of fact. Whether a city is considering whether to construct a bridge over a grand waterfall or to close a downtown street so that a private developer can build a downtown mall, politics are in play. But the council-manager system, based as it is in the wrong-headed notion that cities aren't political entities at all, ducks these and all other political questions. Instead, it transforms such questions into managerial problems, which are further sanitized when turned over to unaccountable "experts." Citizens who have strong opinions about these matters are bound to be frustrated by this approach.

Myth: Cities are just another form of business.

Reality: Humbug! Businesses exist to make a profit. Governments exist to order our life in the commons. Businesses provide service only if it positively affects the bottom line. Government provides services because the leadership and voters believe them to be right and just. Government should, of course, be run in a businesslike manner -- but too much business, and it's not a government any longer. This is where politics come in, as the city can calculate its expenditures by electing leaders who run for office with a set of priorities for the voters to examine-- something no city manager has ever had to do.

Myth: The council-manager system costs less and runs more efficiently.

Reality: Spokane's brief experience with the strong-mayor form of government reveals small increases in administrative costs that can't compare with the millions wasted by the council-manager system because of dysfunctional decision-making (e.g., the Lincoln Street Bridge debacle, the terms of the River Park Square garage deal and the Mission Springs fiasco, to name but three). And about efficiency? That has everything to do with getting from point A to point B with the least expenditure of resources. But efficiency should not be viewed apart from effectiveness, which has to do with the more important questions: Do we really want to get to point B? Did we actually get there? The early 20th-century city governments were criticized for being woefully inefficient, because through patronage they employed hundreds of thousands of immigrants. But we know now that the efficiency-minded reformers missed the larger point that city machines inefficiently but effectively delivered socialization, a sense of community, employment and stability, or what one scholar termed "the latent functions of the machine." Interestingly, the U.S. leadership in Iraq, faced as it is with many of the same problems urban governments faced a century ago, has proposed inefficient, labor-intensive, public works projects.

Myth: Strong mayors have too much power.

Reality: This may be the silliest objection of all. Strong mayors are constrained in ways that private sector CEOs would never accept. Most fundamentally, mayors face separation of powers. The city council makes policy and controls the purse strings. Nor are private-sector CEOs constrained by the civil service, nor do they face limitations created both by federalism and state government, let alone the myriad special governing districts, each possessing its own authority (e.g., the STA). Rather than concentrating power, the strong mayor system, at its best, gives us a chance of adding accountability into the mix.

Myth: City government only provides core services.

Reality: You could have fooled me. I must have imagined that that the previous city government was up to its eyeballs in the stuff of economic development when it lent a hand to a downtown mall project. Such activity is not all that unusual, but few like to admit it. Regardless of the form of government, cities have long been involved in matters that take them far afield from traditional services. People have greatly differing views of what a core service is.

So the question isn't whether cities should act across the broad spectrum of community political concern. Instead, the question is how they should do so. Do we rely on unelected managers acting largely independent from an amateur and cacophonous city council, or do we rely on a system that fixes responsibility through a grant of reasonable authority?

We can say that when cities, such as Spokane, reach a sufficiently intense level of political and economic complexity, the need for the strong mayor form of government becomes unavoidable.

Publication date: 08/14/03

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.