White: A strong mayor system isn’t the fix for failed leadership

I am always bemused by those pundits who think moving to a strong mayor form of government is some type of panacea.

It is the loss of an independent professional voice when a city manager form (albeit a hybrid in San Jose’s case) is discarded. The appointment of department heads is already subject to City Council approval and I truly believe that councilmembers lose a voice when they don’t have an independent city manager advocating and recommending sound professional positions and challenging unwise political decision-making with a city manager’s professional viewpoints.

Mistakes happen when city managers give bad recommendations, but those can be readily challenged by eleven elected officials — certainly one can look at Baltimore right now and recognize that a strong professional presence a city manager offers would be welcomed. So I think there are questions that need to be asked and answered when elected officials and citizens think about changing from the council-manager form to some other local government structure.

They ought to carefully weigh and consider the following questions and points:

  • Does a change in form improve accountability by having a full-time mayor versus a city manager working for a City Council? Do individual councilmembers improve their ability to perform by placing some of their power in a strong mayor — who can veto their legislation, appoint their city manager, and, formulate a budget with little or no input from them?
  • Can a case be made that councilmembers are more effective when they appoint the city manager and administer an organization and set goals through their appointee?
  • Will communications with a City Council be more open and impartial if done through a council-appointed city manager who is accountable to them and is not affiliated with political parties, maintains political neutrality and is required by a code of ethics to treat all elected officials fairly and equally?
  • Is it more likely that a city manager, because of a pledge of political neutrality, will appoint department heads based on general management skills and technical competency rather than, say, an elected official who may feel the need to reward political supporters?

So, when you look to change the structure to a different form of local governance, is that due to inherent problems in the structure or is it a problem of weak or failed management that could be readily changed by the council if it is doing its job and assessing and, if necessary, replacing the manager?

After all, the council can change a city manager immediately. Can that be said of a strong mayor where the electorate would have to wait for an election or engage in a costly and divisive recall process?

A citizens committee, council and other advocates of change should, before changing the structure and form of local government, determine if the elected officials properly evaluated the city manager’s performance and ascertain if clear goals for the city manager were established and reviewed with him/her. In other words, don’t fault the form if there was a lack of effective execution of a game plan.

In observing some jurisdictions change from a council-manager form to strong mayor, it has not been a sustained failure of a system. It has been, instead, triggered by one major incident. Examples recently have been the impact of public safety benefit costs and careless investments that resulted in the over-expenditure of operating budgets or loss of invested public funds.

So was this a problem in the form of government or in the people — both appointed and elected — who managed programs, presented recommendations and voted on and/or implemented those recommendations? In some of those cases it appears that the lack of political will to vote against expenditure increases or the desire to cash in on less than cautious investments during high-flying economic times were the real problem.

Finally, a redistribution of power and vesting more power in a strong mayor isn’t a panacea. The courage to say no in the face of politically tough decisions or to remove an ineffective manager when that is required may be the correct solution to resolving a long-standing problem, rather than first blaming and then changing a particular form of government.

Using the rather overused argument that a strong mayor is more accountable is transparent at best. How is it that an elected official, who cannot be voted out of office or recalled at any time, be more accountable than a professional manager who can be removed overnight?

The real issue is that some citizens, interest groups and, in some cases, elected officials want more political power and have a desire to control that power and see the strong mayor form as a way to achieve that outcome.

One can contend that problems of substance, such as, ineffectual decision making, can best be corrected without resorting to structural changes. What it takes is for city leadership to act courageously, honestly and decisively in resolving substantive problems and issues.

So, it can be effectively argued, I believe, that before deserting a form of government that has served millions of citizens effectively for almost 100 years, one should go to the heart of the matter — determine the real problems and issues and look at the performance of appointed and elected officials in dealing with those problems and issues.

Former San Jose City Manager Les White worked for the city from 1984 to 1995 during its transition to the council-manager hybrid form of government under Measure J. He also served in city and town management roles in Los Gatos and Fullerton. 

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