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Strong Mayor - What to Expect 

Commentary by David Rusk

The new millennium will usher in a new form of government for Spokane. After next November's election, the current council and city manager will hand over the keys to the city to a new mayor and seven-member city council.

Twenty-six years ago, Albuquerque, New Mexico, went through the same change. I was there -- on both sides of the transition. From 1971 to 1974, I was a city department head, working for a city manager that reported to five city commissioners.

From 1977 to 1981, I was Albuquerque's second mayor -- like Spokane's new mayor-to-be, a full-time chief executive -- in a mayor-council system.

Why Albuquerque Changed -- Albuquerque voted out its 57-year-old commission-manager system in February, 1974, in the midst of a civic firestorm. By a 3-2 margin, the city commission had fired a highly controversial city manager in December, 1973.

But the commission majority also announced its belief that Albuquerque had outgrown the commission-manager form of government. (Albuquerque's population was 280,000 at the time, compared to Spokane's 190,000 today.)

Albuquerque needs a strong, visionary leader -- a mayor -- elected by the whole community, reformers argued. A collective body like the city commission rarely provides such leadership, and a hired administrator shouldn't. (And, in fact, the commission majority had fired the manager for acting too independently.)

And a larger council, elected by districts, would provide the average citizen with more direct representation than five commissioners elected at-large. (Though diligent and conscientious, the incumbent commissioners implicitly made their own point; three of the five lived on the same block.)

In short order, a citizens charter revision committee revived proposals that had been narrowly rejected three years before. Within three months of the controversial sacking of the city manager, Albuquerque voters adopted a new charter by a two-to-one margin.

Basic Similarities -- There are few differences between Albuquerque and Spokane's systems. Both divide responsibility between the executive branch and the legislative branch, and both leave a strong civil service system untouched.

Both mayors are elected citywide in non-partisan elections for four-year terms. Though the mayor as chief executive leads the executive branch, both charters provide for the mayor to hire a chief administrative officer (CAO), confirmed by the council, as day-to-day administrator.

All nine council members in Albuquerque are elected from single member districts, while Spokane will have two council members each from three districts. Though the mayors do not vote at council meetings, they can veto council actions. A two-thirds council vote is required to override a mayoral veto in both systems.

The primary difference is that Spokane's voters will also elect the council president, running citywide like the mayor. The Albuquerque city council annually elects its chair from among its own members. Having two highly visible officials elected citywide (the mayor and council president) may engender more political conflict than Albuquerque has experienced between the mayor and a council president, who is also beholden to the council majority.

Albuquerque's Experience -- In general, the strong mayor-council system has met the principal goals of charter reform. Albuquerque's mayors have generally been visible community leaders (if not always visionary), and city council members have been more accessible and responsive to their district constituents. With one exception, mayors have maintained Albuquerque's tradition of apolitical, professional management. (The one patronage-minded mayor received barely 10 percent of the vote in his re-election bid.) Civil servants will find little difference under the two systems.

Since the changeover in 1974, the city's population has grown to 440,000 (a 60 percent increase). Albuquerque typically ranks among the fastest growing job markets, and city government actively partners with business leadership in promoting economic development. Its $760 million budget is well managed, and the city's credit rating has risen to AA. Citizens routinely approve almost all bond issues ($100 million every other year). No elected official has ever been investigated for corruption (much less gone to jail).

Who Runs? Who Wins? -- The quality of Spokane's future city officials will depend on a) who chooses to run, and b) whom the voters select among those who choose to run.

For the two decades prior to the change, Albuquerque's "establishment" (successful businessmen, attorneys and other professionals) dominated the part-time, unpaid city commission. They have since disappeared from elected office (not only in city government, but also from the county commission and the school board after these also shifted from at-large to districted bodies).

Being Albuquerque's mayor is now a full-time job (paying $83,500 a year). Successful businessmen and professionals cannot take a sabbatical from their careers -- and a big pay cut -- to be mayor.

To date, Albuquerque's mayors have had substantial political experience. They have been: a former city and county commissioner (an engineer by profession); a former federal executive, city department head and state legislator (myself); a sitting city council member (an automobile dealer); a former city commissioner and long-time president of Albuquerque's very popular community college; an attorney and state senator; and, currently, a newsman turned state and federal official.

In short, Albuquerque's mayors have been experienced "politicos," and Spokane's mayors will likely be the same.

Successful businessmen and well-known citywide civic leaders have had even less success in running for city council. Winning a district election requires knocking on 20,000 doors -- often several times. Few establishment types have the time -- or inclination -- for extensive grassroots campaigning. Albuquerque city council candidates increasingly are unknown citywide -- and often unknown to most of their neighbors before the campaigning begins.

Full-time Part-timers -- Another trend discourages already busy, successful civic leaders from running for city council. If elected, can they afford the time commitment to serve? Albuquerque's charter specifies (as does Spokane's) that city council membership is a part-time activity. Albuquerque council members receive only one-tenth the mayor's salary (or $8,350 annually); the council president receives twice that amount.

Yet each council includes several members who turn a part-time job into a full-time activity. Parkinson's Law is again confirmed: work expands to fill the time available. As the volume and pace of council activity grows, council members with other lives to lead are hard-pressed to keep pace.

Dividing the Power -- Maintaining the division of powers between legislative and executive branches is inherently easier at federal and state levels than municipal level. City council members are far closer to the public agencies -- and their constituents' demands -- than are state legislators and members of Congress.

In theory, the city council is the legislative body, setting broad policy, including approving the budget. In practice, council members will be drawn irresistibly toward micromanaging city departments, infringing on the powers and responsibilities of the mayor and chief administrative officer.

Under the council-manager system, the council combines both legislative and executive powers, though wise council members delegate broad executive authority to the city manager (and minimize their meddling thereafter). How that combined portfolio is formally divided between the executive and legislative branches from the outset will be key to future effectiveness.

Managing the Government -- The mayor and CAO should have clear executive authority to reorganize city departments to achieve greatest efficiency and accountability. They should be able to hire and fire city department heads. (Albuquerque's charter provides for the council to approve only the mayor's choice for CAO.)

Within the framework of the civil service system and union contracts, the mayor and CAO should be free to manage the city's personnel system without council interference. (Having set the rules by adopting personnel ordinances, council members should have the wisdom and restraint to let the city administration live by them.) The city administration should have broad authority to negotiate and execute union agreements.

Under the council-manager system, council agendas typically are crammed with routine approvals of city contracts. Under the new system, all contracting authority should be vested in the mayor and CAO. Contracts should be competitively bid and awarded under clearly established rules.

Awarding architectural, engineering and other professional service contracts are a special case. Here the selection is made on the basis of "soft" criteria (comparative capabilities and experience) rather than "hard" criteria (low bid based on written specifications). Such contracts are ready targets for charges of political favoritism (if not the reality of corruption itself).

Albuquerque uses professional review panels composed of appropriate city staff and public members from the design professions. Panels interview and rank candidate firms. The mayor's recommendation is submitted to the council for approval. (In four years as mayor, I always submitted the panel's top-ranked candidate.) The mayor should also have some discretionary power to engage consultants for smaller tasks -- perhaps a $50,000 ceiling -- without triggering the review panels and council approval.

Finally, the mayor, CAO and department heads will collaborate on preparing the city's operating budget for council action. With the advice of the city planning commission, they will also propose the multi-year capital budget.

The Council's Role: Setting Policy -- If the mayor and CAO are running the government, what is left for the council to do? What they should be doing: setting policy. There are three broad categories for the council's policy-making role: enacting city ordinances, approving the operating and capital budgets and resolving land use issues.

Though council members sometimes initiate often creative and useful proposals, city staff propose most changes to city ordinances. And although the council treats the city budget season as its major event, at least 95 percent of each year's budget is determined by the previous year's budget. (Despite attention-grabbing headlines, Albuquerque's council-approved budgets never varied more than 2 percent from my recommendations.)

Where council members have greater impact is through the capital budget. Typically, all council members are champions of park projects, community centers or other facilities for their districts. (Indeed, they most often campaign for re-election on such successes.) Capital projects have lasting community impact (including on the annual operating budget).

In Albuquerque, however, I believe that the city council has its greatest policy impact through land use planning and zoning cases. Long-range land use planning is a collaborative effort among the city planning department (to whose work the mayor can give direction), the city planning commission (whose members are mayoral appointees) and the city council.

In the transition from council-manager to mayor-council in Albuquerque, the council left the mayor out of the zoning appeals process. Zoning issues move from a professional zoning administrator to planning commission to city council to state district court (if one party is sufficiently grieved). The mayor is not even called upon to ratify or reject the council's decision.

In retrospect, staying out of white-hot zoning controversies has been a time-saver and political blessing for Albuquerque mayors. However, excluding the mayor enhances the council's role in shaping the city's development. Land use is the council's most important policy domain -- as well it should be.

The Revolving Door -- Since adopting the mayor-council system, Albuquerque voters have yet to re-elect a mayor. We've now had seven mayors (one served two discontinuous terms) and, as a result, eight CAOs in 26 years. Though there is greater continuity at city council and staff levels, the voters' revolving-door policy has frustrated long-term reforms.

Why are Albuquerque voters so fickle? (In my judgment, only one of those mayors running for re-election truly deserved to be defeated.)

Well, about a year after I was defeated for a second term, a stranger stopped me on a downtown street.

"Aren't you Mayor Rusk?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"I voted for you the first time, but I didn't vote for you the second time."

Wanting to be profound, I said sympathetically, "Oh?"

"I really thought you were a damn good mayor."

"Then why didn't you support my re-election?" I asked, puzzled.

"Oh, we just can't leave you guys in there too long."

Ultimately, it will fall to Spokane's voters to determine the success or failure of Spokane's new form of government.

David Rusk is an internationally renowned author and urban policy consultant. He served in the New Mexico House of Representatives and was Mayor of Albuquerque from 1977-81. Rusk visited Spokane last October under the sponsorship of the Spokane City Forum, Whitworth College and the City of Spokane. His most recent book is Inside Game, Outside Game (Brookings Institution Press, 1999). Rusk now lives in Washington, D.C.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in The Inlander Dec. 26, 1999.

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