Wednesday night, the League of Women Voters of Richardson presented a program "Is the City's Current Charter Right for Richardson?" I had low expectations for this program. Maybe I was just in a bad mood because, long after the LWV set its date, the opening game of the World Series, featuring the Texas Rangers, ended up landing on the same night. I naively hoped that when the conflict became known, things would get rescheduled, but Major League Baseball wouldn't budge. It turns out to have been a blessing in disguise, as I was spared having to watch the Rangers lose to the Cardinals (I'm a poor sport when my team is losing.) And, the LWV's program taught me a thing or two about city charters.
After the jump, what I learned from the speakers, former Richardson mayor Ray Noah and Robert Lowry, professor of political science at UT-Dallas.
I've blogged before about what I think are the main issues raised in connection with the Richardson charter, for example, direct election of the mayor, single member districts and term limits. I treated these as independent questions. Now, I see they are better thought of as pieces of a puzzle that best fit together only in certain ways.
Richardson's charter is modeled closely on a classic council-manager form of government. An elected city council, with a largely ceremonial mayor, performs the legislative functions of the city, and hires a professional city manager to perform the administrative and executive functions. The council-manager form of government arose in the late 19th century as a reform movement in response to abuses and corruption in the big city "political machines" that used the other most common form of government, the mayor-council form.
In mayor-council governments, the legislative and executive functions are combined in a city council, headed by the mayor. This is more common in cities large enough to require (and to be able to afford) full time mayors and councils. Large cities are also more likely to have diversity (ethnic, religious, socioeconomic) and geographic segregation. Council members themselves hold administrative power, typically in single member districts, whose borders are drawn to increase representation of minorities and to increase attention to the unique needs of each district. The mayor is typically elected at large to ensure there is one elected official accountable to the whole electorate.
Robert Lowry suggested that Richardson voters first need to decide what form of government they want, then many of these other issues tend to fall into place by themselves. Richardson's city fathers, when they drew up a charter in 1956, obviously preferred the reform style council-manager form of government, as did many cities around Texas and around the nation. This form of government grew in popularity in the 20th century, a popularity that endures in the 21st century, especially among mid-sized cities like Richardson.
It appears to me that what itch there is to overturn Richardson's council-manager form of government (from what I can tell, the itch is felt by only a minority of Richardson residents) arises out of dissatisfaction with some of the incumbent council members and the city manager appointed by them. The thinking seems to be that if you can't convince enough of your fellow citizens to vote 'em out under the current rules, then change the rules and try again. Ironically, there's no evidence that single member districts or direct election of the mayor would have resulted in a different council or different results. Even more ironically, the suggested changes being thrown around are more aligned with the big city "political machine" form of government that 19th century reformers were trying to abolish. "Forward to the Past" is not a strategy likely to lead to much satisfaction by anyone, I'm afraid.
Based on all I heard Wednesday night, I'm inclined to leave our city charter more or less alone. And, Go Rangers!