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.
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.