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.


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