The term “weak” is pejorative. There is no way of getting around it. A Google search results in the following definitions:
1. lacking the power to perform physically demanding tasks; lacking physical strength and energy
|synonyms:||frail, feeble, delicate, fragile;|
2. liable to break or give way under pressure; easily damaged lacking the force of character to hold to one’s own decisions, beliefs, or principles; irresolute.
So any discussion of “weak” versus “strong” mayor is problematic from the beginning,
The commission form of government had populist/democratic roots. The idea was to directly elect the people who would run the different departments that delivered services to the city (in our case public works, public safety, finance, accounts). In some cases the “mayor’s” role was simply to run meetings and act as a spokesperson for the government. As such, the role of mayor was rotated among the commissioners in some historical examples.
In the case of our own city, it appears that the mayor’s responsibilities evolved as activities taken on by the city that did not fit into the domains of the other commissioners were allocated to the mayor’s office. These involved economic development, grant writing, and city planning functions. It appears that by default, these responsibilities fell into the mayor’s domain. These responsibilities were added to the duties of the chairing of council meetings, representing the city to other public institutions, and serving as the face of the city rather like the royals in England.
Often when people think about a mayor they envision mayors who play more traditional roles in other cities that don’t have a commission form of government. In many municipalities the mayor is the true CEO. All administrative responsibilities fall under the jurisdiction of a traditional mayor. The budget officer, the public works director, the chief of police, etc. all report and serve at the pleasure of the mayor.
A separate body, the council, passes legislation such as budgets, zoning ordinances, etc.
So to understand the changes being recommended by the current charter commission one needs to recognize that in the commission form of government that we have, the city is really run by five people and that the mayor’s position is quite modest. Any “strengthening” or “weakening” of a mayor is going to be fundamentally limited. If a citizen wants a mayor with real authority, they need to consider a different model. I find it ironic that many of the advocates of the city manager model who are expressing concern over the “weakening” of the mayor, are ignoring that under their proposal they would have stripped the mayor of all administrative authority.
Mayor Kelly’s charge to the current charter review commission was to update the current commission form of government , not replace it. What was refreshing about this process was that the members of this commission, all our elected officials and their deputies, did not focus on the usual parochial issue of how to divvy up power. If you observed their deliberations, you would have seen thoughtful discussions on how best to manage resources given that administrative responsibilities are delegated to departments based on the unique mission of each.
So, for example, it was determined that since the Informational Technology office’s role was an internal one that needed to be shared between departments, it should not be under the domain of one commissioner but instead operate independently as a shared service to all departments.
Over half of the city’s recreational program budget is devoted to the maintenance of the city’s playing fields and buildings. The program has its own recreation commission and director running the program but in the interest of better coordinating the constant maintenance of facilities with the actual activities, it was decided to move the recreation program from the mayor’s office to the Department of Public Works which is charged with all maintenance. In fact, the Recreation Commission issued a statement that endorsed this reconfiguration.
It seems especially logical, and a credit to Mayor Kelly who implemented this last January, that the state of the city address should be done by the entire council, not just the mayor as has been done in the past. In their literature, the critics see sharing this function as representing a weakening of the mayor’s authority. It appears to me that this is simply a thoughtful recognition that in a commission form, to accurately describe the state of the city, it is best done by the mayor and all the other commissioners.
It should be noted that it is not just the mayor’s office that has been affected by the changes proposed this year. For instance, the Finance Department is giving up IT, and appointments to boards made by the Commissioner of Accounts and the Commissioner of Public Works will also be subject to the approval of the majority of the council.
So, in the end, it seems all of this is a matter of perspective. If you are not comfortable with the distribution of responsibilities in a commission form of government in general, it makes sense that you would be troubled by these reforms. For those who see merit in power sharing, these reforms will be welcomed.