Monday, October 26, 2015

A Strong Mayor for Richardson

Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer thinks he knows why the City of Dallas can't get big things done. It's the weak mayor.
By tightly husbanding control of the city in the office of city manager -- a person hired, not elected -- the city fathers here have maintained their own access while effectively shutting off access for the larger electorate. It's not that voters can't ever get anything done, but they can only get little things done, on the scale of new stop signs and storm sewer repairs.

To get big things done, like a grand public vision for the river, we would have to have what Houston has -- a strong mayor system. To accomplish a great dream, a city needs someone at the helm who can steer a course but who also can be kicked off the ship if he steers a course the public doesn't want.
Given that Richardson's council-manager form of government (a.k.a. weak mayor) is similar to that in Dallas (originally, our city charter was based on Dallas's of the time), and given that Richardson voters are about to decide whether to amend our city charter, it's probably worth a moment of our time to think about Schutze's thesis.

There, a moment's up. That's about all the time that the recent charter review commission spent considering whether Richardson's weak mayor form of government still fits our needs. To be fair, the marching order the commission was given by the city council was to recommend "amendments to cause the Charter to conform to federal and state law where conflict or inconsistency exist." So, it's the council itself that wasn't interested in exploring Schutze's thesis that a weak mayor system maintains the establishment's access to city government while shutting off access for the larger electorate.

Look, times change. At one time the council-manager form of government was considered a progressive reform, keeping politics (and its associated corruption) out of city government and putting day-to-day operations into the hands of professional managers. But that was a hundred years ago. The moneyed interests have had a long time to figure out how to game the council-manager form of government to benefit their interests. Judging by Schutze's attitude and by my own observations of Richardson's government, I'm beginning to wonder if it's time to rethink.

Who runs Richardson? Ask the average man on the street and he might be able to name his council member. Maybe even the mayor. You know, the ones who ride the parade floats or cut the ribbons at groundbreakings. But try to get these guys to do something that matters to an average person and they are likely to just pass constituents' requests on to somebody at city hall who reports to the city manager. That's because, according to our council-manager form of government, the council members can't directly give orders to city employees, who all work for the city manager, not the mayor or city council. Probably not one person in a hundred can name our city manager.

By and large, this does keep corruption out of city government, as intended, but it's had the downside of making city government less responsive to the electorate. You can't vote for the city manager. And the office holders that you can vote for, the city council, don't actually run the city operations. (Look at what can happen to a council member who actually tries to get a city employee to do her job. He gets referred to grand jury.)

Is it time for a change? Richardson voters met a pre-requisite for a change when they voted in 2012 for direct election of the mayor. They didn't give the mayor the powers of the city manager, but in this November's election, they'll have the opportunity to take a small step in that direction, too. Proposition No. 17 amends the city charter to give the mayor the power to bind the city by signing contracts. Currently, that power resides solely in the city manager.

But going the whole way and transferring all of the city manager's powers to an elected mayor is going to take another citizen petition to even put the question to the voters. The current city council has shown little interest in doing so. It hasn't even demonstrated the curiosity to explore the pros and cons of how we currently do things. That might be the strongest argument yet that the current system has grown calcified and is in need of comprehensive review.

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