The Poorly Defined Mayor In The Charter Invites Future Conflict

During the gestation of the charter, the Commission wrestled with what the role of the mayor should be.  Given that they had eliminated all the administrative duties that the mayor under the current charter has, they still wanted the new mayor to play some sort of leadership role beyond running the council meetings and appearing at public events representing the city.

If you were obsessive like me and listened to the charter meetings you would have heard members of the charter commission articulate a vision of the mayor as kind of a community organizer.  This mayor would work in the community to mobilize resources for unspecified projects.  The problem was that they could not find language to put in the charter that articulated this concept.  Instead they incorporated the following items under the mayor’s list of duties (section 2.04):

“Represent the City in Intergovernmental relationships”

“Perform other duties as may be specified by the City Council.”

Consistent with the lack of clarity surrounding this new type mayor, the Commission never specified whether this person would be part time or full time.  They raised the salary to $40,000.00 but the rationale for choosing this number, which has been discussed at length in other posts, had no discernible logic.

Some members of the charter commission saw the position as part time, others offered that some mayors will spend more time on the job than others.  It seemed particularly odd that the position includes health benefits.  The commission was quite proud that they had eliminated health benefits for the other members of the council.  They never explained why a position that appeared to be part time would receive these benefits.  Health benefits can cost the city upwards of $25,000.00.  The position seems to suffer from the neither fish nor fowl syndrome.  The position still seems to pay too little to get someone full time with the skill set that they envision.  On the other hand, given that the job includes no administrative duties and the fact that the median salary for mayors statewide in municipalities that have city mangers is $12,000.00 the pay seems too generous.

An Indifference To the Potential Dangers When Clarity Is Lacking

The central management problem with this design of the mayor’s position is that it is simply impossible to draw a clear line between the internal administrative operations of the city and organizing community resources for projects.

As just a practical example, let’s say that this new mayor decides that the city needs another recreation field.  He/she starts meeting with community groups to get input on where this new field should be placed.  In order to pursue this project the mayor will need support from various city departments.  He/she will probably need help from the planning department, from the city engineer, from the administrator for parks and recreation, from the department of public works, and from the city attorney.  In fact, assistance may be necessary even to arrange for meeting rooms and for some kind of administrative assistance to contact people for meetings.  Now according to  section 2.08 of the charter the mayor may only deal with city employees through the city manager. So what this mayor will need most of all is the active support and assistance of the city manager. But what if the city manager has set other priorities for the city and  finds that he/she simply cannot provide the resources the mayor requires for his/her project in a timely manner or at all.  Any sober person with management experience can see the potential for conflict here. If this seems abstract or unnecessarily pessimistic, one has only to do a Google search to learn otherwise.  Here is a link to what happened in Portland, Maine.

Link to Portland Story

My friend, Lew Benton, observed recently that the problem with the proposed charter is that no one is really in charge.  I know this is the criticism often put forward by the Charter Commission regarding our current commission form but Lew appropriately saw a similar problem with the city manager/mayor design proposed by the Charter Review Commission.

This is perhaps why the strong mayor/council form of government is so much more popular in New York than the city manager form.  Only sixteen municipalities in New York State have city managers and a number of cities that tried city managers switched to strong mayors.  With a strong mayor you have greater clarity regarding who is responsible for the management of the city. There is the added advantage that his person is elected and therefore directly responsible to the voters.

The fact is that there is no perfect design.  The strong mayor form has its own problems.  The frustration for me is that the Charter Commission refuses to acknowledge and try to address problems with the government they have designed in their charter.  They simply dismiss any concerns that are raised assuring us that everything will be perfect under their new system.  Problems like those in Portland Maine are ignored.  The need for clarity about distinguishing the roles of the city manager and the proposed mayor in writing their charter are simply not discussed.

Will It Actually Work?  Why Worry?

The last duty of the mayor listed in the proposed charter reads: the mayor shall “perform other duties as may be specified by the City Council” (section )2.04 The inclusion of this provision makes one wonder if any charter members have been observing the city council for the last five decades.  It’s not a stretch at all  to imagine a council asking a mayor to do something and the mayor telling the council, “I don’t have time to do that” or “that would be wrong and I will not do it”?  With respect to the members of the charter review commission, this  represents a serious lack of understanding about government in general and our government in particular.  How do the members of the charter commission expect this to be enforced?  If  readers of this blog think this provision should have been included in the charter, I invite them to explain how they think it will be enforced.


4 thoughts on “The Poorly Defined Mayor In The Charter Invites Future Conflict”

  1. OK John – I’ll bite. Hopefully you won’t censor this….

    I voted for Charter Change the last two go ’rounds, but was against this one initially because of the strong mayor. Realistically, it would have been telling an already proven unethical mayor that she would be rewarded with even more power and a raise. No way in h*ll I’m for that. Once the strong mayor was removed I was OK with it. Are there things I would like to see changed with it? A few, sure. But overall it will be MUCH more like the local municipalities surrounding us. And from what I have seen personally, that’s a GOOD thing for the city.


  2. John,

    The proposed Charter fails to vest the chief executive authority in any one office or officer. The proposed City Manager is the “chief administrative officer.” The mayor is the presiding officer of the City Council and is recognized as the “head of City government for all ceremonial purposes” but specifically has no administrative duties, much less executive authority.

    The proposed seven member City Council, including the mayor, is “the legislative, policy-making and appropriating body..”

    No where in the proposal is there a defined executive authority. That is why I did, in fact, say ‘no one is in control.’ But, of course, there must be a chief executive authority vested somewhere in any government so, in the proposed Charter, it is, by default, the City Council. So the five-headed monster that is the current commission and mayor is to be swapped out for a one-headed monster with seven different “brains,” personalities, agenda and political views.

    It is true that the City Manager will have the unilateral authority to appoint, manage, discipline, suspend and remove most City employees but that will be tempered by Charter authority allowing the City Council to discuss its views and “anything” pertaining to appointment and removal of officers and employees. (see Section 2.07 C).

    Not that it makes one iota of difference, but I have always been in favor of abandoning the commission form we in favor of a City Council and Mayor form. A form with the well defined, unambiguous roles of legislative and chief executive authority. I hope I’m wrong ,but the proposed Charter seems to further blur these roles.

    Experience would suggest that in such a system the most powerful personality, or clique will assume the leadership role. We might only look at the fate of the County’s first two “administrators” after that position was established by local law. And, in my view, the proposed Charter will not diminish political influence in major decision making, influence that the Commission seems to have been so intent on limiting.

    So the dilemma, from my vantage point, is how to reconcile concern about the proposal with the need to finally scrap the commission form.

    For your readers who may be plagued with insomnia I attach below the comments I made to the Charter Revision Commission in September 2016.


    Some Thoughts on the City Charter and Public Safety

    Born in the aftermath of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane that left 6,000 Galveston, Texas citizens dead and the city destroyed, the Commission Form (the Galveston Plan) was intended as an emergency measure to give city officials extraordinary executive powers to address the crisis. Galveston has long since abandoned the commission form for a council-manager form of government. And while it is true that Portland, Oregon has a commission form it is radically different than ours and is overseen by a strong mayor.

    As you know, the current Charter was presented to the community on September 4, 2001, was approved at referendum that year and became effective January 1, 2004. As such, it postdates my years as commissioner but I note my membership on the Commission which prepared it.

    It did not change the form of our government – now 101 years old – but rather was designed to more definitively describe the role and function of council members and certain other City officials, promote greater efficiency in programs and services, prescribe a comprehensive budgeting process, promote openness, require periodic reviews of the Charter itself and other presumed essential plans and programs, etc.

    In essence it was an attempt to reform and modernize – not change – our form of government. In hindsight, attempting to reform major governmental functions without recognizing and addressing the barriers to reform was probably akin to putting new wine in old skins.

    From my perspective as a former public safety commissioner, a life long member of the community and a member of the 2000 – 2001 Charter Review Commission, I believe the changes resulted in certain benefits to the public and improved the administration of some key governmental functions (operating and capital budgeting for example). But they did not and could not address the fundamental flaws in our commission form: i.e.,

    there remains no separation of powers between the executive function and the legislative function;
    the inherent conflict between the dual roles of legislator and administrator/executive was not addressed;
    the form’s inbred parochialism further impedes the legislative function, hinders oversight, argues against economies of scale and promotes turf struggles; and
    the recognition that the commission form was designed for extreme crisis management, not governance of a progressive, stable and fiscally sound city such as ours.

    We are not an island. A local government, particularly in a state like New York, cannot function optimally with what is essentially five (5) executives, each with discrete appointing authority, each a ‘personnel director,’ each with the power to hire and fire and discipline, each solely responsible by Charter law for the “overall operation of the several departments and functions” assigned to their office and who, collectively, make up the legislative body. These roles are inherently in conflict. I believe our commission form has become too unwieldily, too adversarial, too opaque, too prone to potential abuse of power and too costly.

    Further, even many of the “reforms” and changes put in place with the adoption of the current Charter have been largely ignored or have proven ineffective. Such, in my opinion, have included the following:

    how, when and why the City retains “additional legal services” whose costs have frequently far exceeded budget authority (see Title 8);
    apparent frequent failure of some councils and city boards to adhere to the Open Meetings Law (see Title 13.4);
    engaging in unilateral negotiation and entering into agreements with other governments and contracting for services without the required authorization of the Council (see Title 3.B.): and
    the 2009 shuttering of the Charter mandated Human Resources Administrator’s office and the assignment of its functions to the then city attorney (see Title Title 3.2).

    The Charter and Public Safety

    Since the first City Council was seated on June 22, 1915, there have been 15 commissioners of public safety.

    Art Leonard, the City’s third public safety commissioner and a surgeon, served the longest, a total of nearly 23 years, but his tenure was interrupted by three resignations and one re-election defeat. In the end he was indicted but never brought to trial.

    His successor committed suicide in his city hall office immediately prior to a 1964 Council meeting.

    A total of nine lost re-election bids, including four who were defeated after serving but one term. Only Dr. Leonard successfully sought re-election after being defeated. Of the 15, only four have left office on their own motion. So public safety has not always been kind to incumbent commissioners.

    Today the public safety commissioner manages a nearly $25,000,000 operating budget (56.5% of the total 2016 City budget), the police and fire departments, public health, animal control, central dispatch, traffic control and parking enforcement. The nearly 150 public safety employees are represented by six (6) separate labor unions, most with rights of binding arbitration.

    It is no wonder why only a few have the time, ability and resources to serve.

    Additionally, of course, the commissioner serves as a member of the City Council and votes to adopt his own budget, approve his employees’ labor contracts, increase his staff, establish new titles, adopt ordinances and local laws effecting his departments. He, along with his peers, prepare and vote on the very policies, rules and regulations that they, in their executive capacities, must administer and enforce. Of course, all of this applies equally to all four commissioners and the mayor as well.

    It is long established that these conflicting roles can compromise both functions and thus deny the public the benefits of a truly representative legislative body functionally independent of an executive branch and reasonably buffered against inappropriate political influence. It is difficult to serve two masters and impossible to serve both well, or we serve one well and thus neglect the other. Neither is acceptable, particularly when performing a public trust.

    Finally, please know that these views are mine alone and are not intended to be critical of any of those with whom I served or any members of the current council, many of whom gave and continue to give dedicated and even heroic service. Rather, I simply point out what I consider to be insurmountable shortcomings.



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