Friday, March 28, 2008

The Choice is Clear

The Bainbridge Resource Group (BRG) distributed the first in a series of papers today on the Council-Manager and Strong Mayor forms of government. A petition is currently circulating in the community to put the question on the ballot later this year. Published with permission.

Council-Manager or Strong Mayor?

The Choice is Clear

Learn the Facts about Council-Manager Government

Everyone wants strong political leadership – neighborhoods, civic leaders, and the business community included. And today’s complex communities cannot survive without the guidance of effective mayors who provide a sense of direction and contribute to the smooth functioning of a local government.

But communities also need thoughtful, dedicated council members, who work with the mayor to establish appropriate policy, and competent, professional managers to carry out those policies. None of the three are mutually exclusive; they can and do work together today in many of the country’s successful council-manager communities.

Today council-manager government is the fastest growing form of government in the U.S; it frees up the elected body to establish policy, which is carried out by an appointed manager and an administrative staff. The manager is accountable to the entire council for the satisfactory implementation of the council policy and the day-to-day administration of municipal affairs.

There are compelling reasons why many of the nation’s most successful cities and towns have adopted council-manager government rather than “strong-mayor” form. Council-Manager government encourages neighborhood input into the political process, diffuses the power of special interests, and eliminates partisan politics from municipal hiring, firing and contracting decisions.

People who take the time to learn the facts about council-manager government are likely to join the ranks of those who favor this popular form. Consider the following when deciding which form of government is best for your community:

Neighborhoods Strengthen Their Voice

The council-manager form encourages open communication between citizens and their government. Under this form, each member of the governing body has an equal voice in policy development and administrative oversight. This gives neighborhoods and diverse groups a greater opportunity to influence policy.

Under the “strong-mayor” form, political power is concentrated in the mayor, which means that other members of the elected body relinquish at least some of their policy-making power and influence. This loss of decision-making power among council members can have a chilling effect on the voices of neighborhoods and city residents.

The Power of Special Interests is Diffused

Under the council-manager form of government, involvement of the entire elected body ensures a more balanced approach to community decision making, so that all interests can be expressed and heard – not just those that are well-funded or well-connected. Under the “strong-mayor” form, however it is easier for special interests to use money and political power to influence a single elected official, rather than having to secure a majority of the city council’s support for their agenda.

Merit-Based Decision Making vs. Partisan Politics

Under council-manager government, qualifications and performance-and not skillful navigation of the political election process-are the criteria the elected body uses to select a professional manager. The professional manager, in turn, uses his or her education, experience, and training to select department heads and other key managers to oversee the efficient delivery of services. In this way, council-manager government maintains critical checks and balances to ensure accountability at city hall.

Functioning much like a business organization’s chief executive officer, the appointed professional manager administers the daily operations of the community. Through a professional staff, the manager ensures the effective provision of services and enforces the policies adopted by the elected body. He or she, in turn, uses merit as the leading criterion for making all hiring and personnel decisions.

Appointed local government managers have no guaranteed term of office or tenure. They can be dismissed by the council at any time, for any reason. As a result, they constantly must respond to citizens and be dedicated to the highest ideals of honesty, integrity and excellence in the management and delivery of public services.

Under the “strong mayor” form of government, the day-to-day management of community operations shifts to the mayor, who often lacks the appropriate training, education and experience in municipal administration and finance to oversee the delivery of essential community services. Also, under the “strong mayor” form, the temptation is strong to make decisions regarding hiring and firing of key department head positions-such as police chief, public works director and finance director-based on the applicant’s political support rather than his or her professional qualifications.

Many Successful Cities Use Council-Manager Government

Council-Manager government works! It balances diverse interests, responds quickly to challenges, and brings the community together to resolve even the toughest issues.

Currently, more than 98 million Americans live in council-manager communities, and the system continues to flourish. This form of government is used by thousands of small, medium and large jurisdictions, including Boulder, San Antonio, San Diego, Sacramento, San Jose and Phoenix. In Washington it includes, for example: Bellevue, Bothell, Burien, Centralia, Ellensburg, Kirkland, Mercer Island, Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace, Port Townsend, and Richland.

History Argues for the Council-Manager Form of Government

Nearly 100 years old, the council-manager form of government has proven it adaptability; today it is the most popular choice of structure among U.S. communities with populations of 2,500 or greater. Since 1988 the percentage of U.S. cities under council-manager has increased from 35% to 49% and the percentage of U.S. cities under mayor-council has decreased from 55% to 43.5%. During this time the number of cities has increased by 8%.

Council-Manager government, however, was not always an option. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was widespread corruption, graft and nepotism among U.S. cities. The stories of New York’s Tammany Hall and Kansas City’s Pendergrast machine are only two of the legendary stories of the misuse of local government power during this time.

By the early 20th century, reformers were looking for ways to return control of municipal government to citizens. Those reformers advocated the council-manager structure of government to eliminate corruption found in many cities. With its emphasis on professional training and accountability, the council-manager form of government was adopted by a number of cities in the 1920s and 1930s.

It took years to diffuse the power entrenched in turn-of-the-century city political machines and special interests. Today, however, citizens throughout the U.S. have resumed control by adopting or retaining council-manager government in their community and enjoying representative democracy at its best.

Adapted from: California City Management Foundation, originally published in 1998.

New data included from Municipal Yearbook of the International Council Manager Association. And from Municipal Research Services Center at

(To post or read comments on this story click on 'COMMENTS' below)


Stefan said...

One's perspective on council/manager vs council/mayor forms of municipal government is dependend upon one's experience. There is no obvious best. A "great" mayor will inspire confidence in a strong-mayor form, as might a quarrelsome council; a "poor" mayor will inspire longing for a manager.

Unfortunately, the council/manager form of municipal government can - and may ultimately always - evolve into the sort of democracy illustrated by the old story of two wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for dinner. No checks-and-balances resort is available to protect the rights of citizens whose councilmembers find themselves in the habitual minority. A mayor is a very important part of the checks-and-balances concept integral to our democracy.

The political logistics of exercising special-interests influence is also simplified in a council/manager form. Vested interests need only influence a majority of voters in a majority of districts or wards, which may fall well short of a majority of voters, especially in the case where a group in power is able to effect gerrymandering.

In the case at hand, the examples given of council/manager forms of municipal government include many cities that folks might characterize as flashy or glitzy, depersonalized, automobile-dense, highly consuming, environmentally unfriendly communities, where the idea of "environmental awareness" amounts to a branch of REI or Eddie Bauer in the local shopping mall.

Our island has borne the brunt of a dysfunctional municipal government not because of a strong mayor, or of a dysfunctional mayor, but because of a dysfunctional mayor/council combination. Anyone who has witnessed some of the more, shall we say, interesting, city council meetings here might wonder if it is wise at all to put the reins of city government in the hands of a majority of the members of such a body. Better we figure out how to enable the citizens of the island to make better choices when they vote, while retaining the justice embodied in the concept of checks-and-balances.

owl said...

Stefan, the problem arises when a Mayor decides to interfere with the execution of Council's policy or directs staff to pursue her own agenda even if that agenda is contrary to the wishes of Council and the people who elected them. That is quite a powerful "check" on the legitimate power of the Council, but certainly not very democratic.

I have to disagree that a Council-Manager form of government is less democratic that a Strong Mayor form. My perception is that the former is much closer to direct democracy as all decisions are made by 7 elected individuals in a public meeting. If we don't like those decisions, we can vote Councilors out of office. If we like the decisions, but the City Manager fails to effectively execute them, the Council may fire the Manager.

As for your concern regarding the “glitzy”, “depersonalized” and “environmentally unfriendly” nature of some of the cities that have adopted this form of government, I would submit that the list of such cities also includes Boulder, Austin, and our own little Port Townsend, while the list of “Strong Mayor” cities across this country includes some pretty dense, dirty and impersonal places.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it just be easier to recall the mayor?

Ready for Change said...

Darlene Kordonowy is on her fourth administration, and still not getting along, so who is the source of the problems? Do we really want to stay in a government that puts so much power in one person's hand? And if you are talking about the buying of power, do you think it is easier to do it with one person or with four? Strikes me that Winslow Tomorrow has already answered that one as well.

Anonymous said...

Checks and balances: That’s why I support a Council-Manager form of government for our community (probably any community under 50K). While 3 branches of government appear to be essential for larger political entities (Seattle, WA state, U.S., Dallas, Denver, etc.), the “checks & balances” don’t appear to work for a community our size. Here’s 3 reasons for starters.
(1) ONLY the Council must carry out virtually all of its acts within the public view. Not the Mayor. She can meet privately with individuals, lobbyists, staff, etc. from dawn into the night, in groups of 1 – 100 and the meeting need not be public UNLESS more than 3 Council members show up! In addition, the Mayor has working for her at her beck and call 150+ FT employees and an undetermined number of part-timers, consultants, and citizen volunteers (Commissioners, etc.). By contrast, Council has ZERO. Not one individual assigned to help them sift through, evaluate, etc. the huge volume of material that these 150+ people have forwarded to them for action.
(2) What about the fact that we can vote to change the makeup of our Council every two years by voting in 3 (or 4) Council members. By contrast, a Mayor is in office for 4 years and challengers will always have an uphill battle due to lack of “name recognition”, if nothing else. How many islanders are “watching” what goes on in City Hall? Not many. Most folks just want to believe that all is cool in the City, that their interests are being protected, and that they can comfortably turn their attentions to other pressing personal concerns.
(3) Council members seem to be involved with a wide spectrum of their electorate on a regular basis. Who do you go to when you want to find out something or believe something is wrong? Who might really take the time to help, and follow up? It’s not the Mayor. Unfortunately, too many of us know that from direct experience.

Can our community afford to just “trust” the Mayor and her 100s of helpers whom our tax dollars are paying? I’m ready for a change. In a community our size, I’d rather trust the Council. They have no staff, no money to play with and just a lot of haranguing from all of us. Let Council decide who to hire and why. Trusting the Mayor hasn’t been working on Bainbridge.