Monday, May 23, 2011

Direct Election of Richardson's Mayor

Each council term, Richardson's mayor is selected by the seven council members from among their own ranks. The mayor for the 2011-2013 term will be selected Monday night, May 23, 2011. Earlier, I offered The Wheel's betting line on which council member will end up mayor.

Today, I want to look at a bigger question. Should Richardson voters directly elect the mayor? You might think that property taxes and city services might command voters' attention instead, but this process issue keeps cropping up in city council elections. Some of the interest can be attributed to the dislike of the long-serving, soon-to-be former mayor by a vocal minority of residents. They haven't been able to dislodge the mayor through the current system, so they look to change the system. Regardless of the source of the desire to change the system, let's look at the issue on its merits.

After the jump, should Richardson change its charter to have direct election of the mayor?

One council candidate said, yes, "because it's the right thing to do." He makes it sound self evident. But if so, why does the US House of Representatives choose their Speaker themselves instead of having the voters do it? Why does the Texas legislature do the same? There has to be more to the analysis than an unthinking "because it's the right thing to do."

Sometimes the argument is made that the mayor is mostly a ceremonial office. If that's the case, then direct election has little affect on the workings of government. Keep the process as is or change to direct election, it won't matter either way. Who gets his picture in the paper cutting ribbons won't affect city ordinances, zoning decisions or taxes.

Sometimes the argument is made that the mayor is a powerful position because the mayor sets the council agenda. This has always been somewhat unclear to me. As defined in the charter, the mayor's powers and duties are rather limited. The mayor represents the city on ceremonial occasions, but other than that, the mayor's is just one vote among seven. The charter says nothing about how council meeting agendas are set.

But let's assume that it's the mayor who sets the council agenda. In that case, direct election of the mayor could work to subvert the wishes of the voters as expressed in their election of the six other members of the council. You could end up with gridlocked government, with the mayor and the council at odds. I suppose if you believe gridlocked government is good because it keeps the b*stards from doing anything at all, then you might like direct election of the mayor. But if your idea of effective government is different, then you might want to let a majority of the council elect their leader so as to facilitate passage of the programs supported by that majority.

Let's assume the charter is changed. Whether or not it has a material effect on the workings of government, it is likely to have an effect on who ends up on the council. An elected position of mayor will tend to draw the best and the most capable candidates to all run for mayor. The winner gets the job, the losers go home. The city loses by having only one of these talented candidates serving the city. In contrast, the current system generally permits most of the best candidates to serve together. There are seven places to contest, all chosen by all the voters. Candidates usually sort themselves out so that strong candidates end up running for different places rather than against each other. The city wins by getting the services of all of the strong candidates.

I wish we could go back and talk to the Richardson city fathers who set up the current system of selecting the mayor all those decades ago. I imagine they had good reasons for choosing to do it the way they did. They must have thought it was the "right thing to do." We ought to understand those reasons and have equally good reasons, or better, for changing a system that has led to effective government and avoided dysfunctional government in Richardson for decades.

I fear that the issue of direct election of the mayor is just the point of the spear for a much larger attack on city government: the wholesale rewriting of the city charter for the purposes of The Californiacation of Richardson.


Mark Steger said...

Recently, someone brought to my attention this section of the Texas Constitution:

"The Texas Constitution, Article 6, Section 3.
Sec. 3. MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS; QUALIFICATIONS OF VOTERS. All qualified voters of the State, as herein described, who reside within the limits of any city or corporate town, shall have the right to vote for Mayor and all other elective officers."

I don't understand how Richardson's method of selecting its mayor is in compliance with the Texas Constitution.

Nathan Morgan said...

I was surprised that you omitted the issue of legality in your discourse here. Elected officials of Texas governing bodies have nothing to do with Federal elections, excepting any Federal laws that guide behavior.

The Texas Constitution and State Laws trump the Home Rule Charter. That's a fact.

It is also a fact that the Mayor of Richardson is not and has not been, elected by the voters as the Texas Constitution mandates. That is what is commonly known and regarded as illegal. Consequently, this makes those Mayors who were selected by the Council over the years illegitimate, and, technically, anything they did while in the office unlawful.

I don't know that there is any kind of criminal penalty associated with such acts. And, I'm not calling for the perp walk for the culprits. But, I think we should take a good look at the team of City Manager, Municipal Judge and legal council who the Charter charge with the chief responsibility for assuring all laws are enforced.

Renegade political practices have no place in the State of Texas, much less in the City of Richardson. It is long-past time to do the right thing and abide by the law of the land.