The (paradoxical) strengths of a “Weak Mayor”

(For any of the ProQuest links — indicated in red — in the post below, I suggest you go here first, log in with your library card number, press the Massachusetts Newsstand button, and then you should be able to click on the links and view the archived articles mentioned.)

In the last installment we examined some of the attractions of the “Strong Mayor” form of government.  Let’s now have a look at the other side of that equation.

On the side of Plan E

Tracy warned us to be cautious about a strong mayor form of government:

Looking around at the cities that have strong mayors, I very much do not see this as a road Worcester wants to go down. If you think city government isn’t responsive now, try having one person who makes all of the decisions–and then getting that person’s attention. This is particularly true of education, certainly (Chicago, Boston, D.C.), but it is also true of other issues. I think there are those who are dissatisfied with particular things in city government and think the entire system needs an overhaul; I’d point to the lack of turnover in the last election for how much the rank and file voters actually want change.

Tracy alluded to a couple of things:
A worry that a strong mayor form of government would politicize city government [more than it already is]. Albert Southwick quotes from an Evening Gazette editorial from the late 1950s, regarding strong mayor form of government: “an antiquated form of partisan municipal government under which could flourish the patronage, ward politics and the kind of inefficiency which once had Worcester on the ropes.”  And I think it would be fair to be concerned that a strong mayor form of government would turn into that.

As Tracy pointed out, so few people vote in elections, there’s little turnover, and (in some cases) no challengers to incumbents. Would a strong mayor form of government get people more involved in their city, or would their frustration just shift from the manager’s office to the mayor’s?  And — instead of someone who has half a clue about running a city — would we end up with a politico who ingratiates himself to enough of the electorate to continue to get elected?

In addition to Tracy’s points, it’s worth bearing in mind that city managers are professionals. They bring a set of skills to the position that may not be sexy in an electoral sense, but, when given coherent direction by the city council, a professional manager can also be a leader.  Depending on the person in the position, a manager could have experience in other municipalities or organizations, and can use that to benefit the city. If our city council were capable of arriving at a consensus on priorities, a professional city manager could then act upon that consensus.  In the absence of that, our current city manager seems to create his own set of priorities, which may or may not be in line with what the city council, and the electorate, intend.

Two-year election cycles might be too short for the administrator of a city. One of the benefits of having a city manager is that we don’t have to worry about a strong mayor who spends half his time planning for the next election, or initiating feel-good projects to win votes.

What is this discussion really about?

If you replace the word “Toledo” for “Worcester” in the following quote from this post, it’s the single best summary I can think of:

Regardless of the lessons from local history, Toledoans have been unable (or maybe it is unwilling) to retain an institutional memory. They are under the misimpression that politics can indeed be removed. Toledo citizenry puts itself in another catch-22. On one hand, Toledoans want a supposedly non-partisan, non-political, professional CEO that they allege can only be secured by having a city manager. On the other hand, Toledoans want a CEO that is accountable and responsible to the citizens, something that can only come through a CEO who is elected directly by the people, that is a strong mayor.

Steve Jones-D’Agostino asked the following six years ago:

But questions remain: Does Worcester really need a strong mayor? Or does the city need a strong leader? And if it’s the latter, will changing the form of government make any difference?

And those points are as relevant today as they were six years ago, or sixty years ago, and they will still be relevant sixty years from today.

Here are a few recent issues in our city that cried out for a LEADER:

Did anyone ask if our contract with Fontaine Brothers for the Crompton Park pool covered crazy high PCB levels, or just normal levels?  Did anyone ask if we think the other pools with also have these kinds of abatement issues, and how this will impact the city’s plans for pools and spray parks? They did not.

Did anyone ask why tobacco buffer zones get to have a public hearing, but operating a regional public health system with Shrewsbury just warrants a short note in the T&G? They did not.

Will anyone mention the lack of tenants in the Union Station Garage, the complete nightmare (for both pedestrians and motorists) that has been imposed on Foster Street and Worcester Center Boulevard, or the continued headache that is Washington Square? We’ll see tonight.

Not only did our City Manager fail to take a leadership role in such issues, none of our councilors took the initiative, either — including the Mayor.

Our councilors don’t hold the city manager to account for issues like these, and neither do we, the voters, hold those councilors to account for such omissions.  Sloppy procedures, lack of vision and an inability to LEAD are the hallmarks of Worcester governance.

Why, then, should we expect that things would be any different under a “strong mayor” form of government?  Wouldn’t he/she be the equivalent of a City Manager in most respects?  If we’re not willing to hold the City Manager to account (via our councilors), what makes anyone think that the lethargic electorate of Worcester will suddenly participate if they’re allowed to elect their leader?

When the people of Worcester shake off their apathy and get their lazy posteriors to the polls once every two years and give a vote of confidence to their elected officials, maybe I’ll consider adding my signature to a “strong mayor” petition drive.

At this point, I think it would be merely trading one form of unaccountable despotism for another.

What will wake up the electorate, then, if not some grand change to the city charter?  Perhaps some projects that we, as citizens, can undertake, whether city-wide, or within our neighborhoods — there are many areas where ordinary citizens can “lead”, despite the leadership vacuum in City Hall.  Our councilors and other city officials are sometimes even helpful and can be brought on board if someone or some group takes the initiative to get something started.  If you’re frustrated enough to want to pound the pavement gathering signatures for charter change, why not get frustrated enough to petition for bike paths, or organize a neighborhood crime watch meeting, or serve on a commission?

I’d like to thank Tracy and Williby for their thought on this topic, which helped me wrap my head around the topic of Strong Mayor vs. Plan E.  Although I have my own opinions on this topic, I’d enjoy hearing other points of view in case there are nuances I’ve missed.

Theoretical strengths of a “Strong Mayor”

(For any of the ProQuest links — indicated in red — in the post below, I suggest you go here first, log in with your library card number, press the Massachusetts Newsstand button, and then you should be able to click on the links and view the archived articles mentioned.)

There were two great comments from more than a week ago that I wanted to respond to earlier, and which I felt deserved a larger response from me.  Conveniently enough, one was in favor of a strong mayor form of government, and one critical of that form of government (at least without major considerations).

In light of the city manager evaluation that’s coming up this evening, I wanted to write a couple of posts weighing strong mayor/strong city manager forms of government.

Why do we have a city manager anyway?

From 1893 to 1950, Worcester had a bicameral legislature (a 11-member board of aldermen and a 30-member common council) and an essentially weak mayor with veto power for appointments.  (See the “Under new management” section in this article for more details.)  City government was perceived as extremely corrupt and ineffective (except, perhaps, for lining people’s pockets and as a spectator sport for those who love political infighting).

In 1947, Worcester voters overwhelmingly chose to change their form of government to Plan E (an elected, nine-member city council and a city manager, who handles day-to-day operations).  In 1985, voters changed our form of government to allow for 11 councilors, 5 of whom would be district councilors (where previously all were at-large) and an elected mayor (where previously the council would pick the mayor).

On the “strengths” of a strong mayor

Williby Wooster wrote a comment in favor of a strong mayor form of government, and I’d like to outline some reasons why one might be in favor of a strong mayor.

The ability to elect an administrator. In our current form of government, the City Manager is the chief executive, and — by and large — he’s making all the decisions.  While some citizens may be frustrated by various aspects of their interactions with their city councilors, I think they’re equally frustrated by a feeling — justified or not — that the councilors don’t ultimately have much power.  (For example, the Public Health & Human Services subcommittee discussed tobacco ordinances in last week’s meeting; on the same day, the City Manager announced that Shrewsbury and Worcester are going to be entering into some sort of public health compact.  So — who’s got more power, and — just as importantly — who’s initiating activity that has a real impact on the city as a whole?)

Accountability. Electing a leader would mean that the mayor would be accountable to the people on a regular basis.  That would mean that the electorate would evaluate the mayoral candidates based on campaign platforms, and that the election would be a way for the voters to show their approval of the progress (or lack thereof) the mayor has made.  Currently, the City Manager is reviewed by the Council (though this is a relatively modern innovation), but that’s not the same as an election every two years.

Frustration with the existing structure. Many of the poor decisions (at least as I see them) have been initiated or championed by the city manager’s office (though not necessarily this city manager).  As Steve Jones-D’Agostino noted in his excellent article from December 2004, City Manager McGrath was responsible for the downtown mall, the fortress-like police station, and the Centrum.  (While the Centrum was not bad for downtown, I think it could and should have been sited better; as Tracy has noted elsewhere, there’s really not a lot of room for pedestrian movement around the DCU Center.)  As we all know, Worcesterites have a tendency to hold those in power accountable for bad decisions and not always give appropriate credit for jobs well done; so, perhaps, I’m as guilty as any of my fellow residents of looking at the negative.

Appreciation for examples set by other cities. I think there are a significant number of people who look at the career of Buddy Cianci not as a cautionary tale but as an example of a person who gets things done.  Albert Southwick said of City Manager McGrath, “He was squeaky clean, to an extent that some Boston politicians could not fathom. He built 40 schools and oversaw many other construction projects without a breath of scandal. … And he established a tradition of honesty in city government that has made it much easier for succeeding managers and city councils to stay within proper ethical boundaries.”  There are people in Worcester who continue to feel inferior to Providence, and I think that many of them credit Cianci, corruption and all, with turning Providence around.  Many of those people would be willing to put up with some of that corruption for what they perceive as the success of Providence.

Leadership. What the Buddy Cianci fans are really pointing to, I would argue, is a sense of leadership.  The City Manager is not really hired to be a leader, per sehe’s evaluated on whether he’s handling municipal operations well.  The City Manager is hired to manage the city; the job description does not require him/her to possess charisma, nor devise/execute a coordinated “vision” for the city.

Are these things entirely lacking in the “Plan E” form of government, or are they achieved (in part or in toto) by other means?

The next installment will look at some of the “strengths” of our current form of government.