Monday, December 10, 2012

Mayor John Marshall

Confidential to Amir Omar and Laura Maczka: This first paragraph is the only time your names will be mentioned in this blog post, but I have you both in mind as I write the rest.

Recently, I lamented what I considered the recent sorry state of Richardson government. In my opinion, in this council term, we've been treading water, accomplishing little, missing opportunities. I titled the blog post "Dysfunctional by Design" because I saw the problem as structural, imposed on us by the constraints of Richardson's City Charter and the Texas Open Meetings Act. I ended on a pessimistic note, saying "I'm thrashing around here. I don't have the solution."

Well, thrash long enough and sometimes you break free from the constraints holding you down. John Marshall, Tom Craddick and the Texas State PTA provide three examples of how things can get done even in the face of structural constraints. One example is lauded by history, one reviled, one trivial, but all show what can be accomplished if you take the initiative to do something.

After the jump, what a Richardson mayor can learn from history.

In 1803, The United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Marbury v. Madison that declared a law passed by Congress unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable. There is nothing in the Constitution that says the Supreme Court can trump Congress in this way. Chief Justice John Marshall decisively acted as if the Court had the power, the Congress and President acquiesced to Marshall, and the rest, as they say, is history. Ever since, the Supreme Court has wielded the power of judicial review without challenge.

Jump ahead two centuries, to the Texas state capitol in Austin, late on the night of May 25, 2007, the last day of the 2007 session, when Representative Fred Hill (R-Richardson) attempted to make a motion to remove Speaker of the House Tom Craddick from office. "Chaos erupted." Craddick, wielding the gavel, refused to recognize Hill. When Hill attempted to appeal the Speaker's refusal to recognize him, Craddick replied, "The Speaker's power of recognition on any matter cannot be appealed." Craddick's own parliamentarian disagreed, was ignored by Craddick, and resigned in protest. Craddick recessed the legislature for two and half hours, found a more amenable parliamentarian, and resumed the session, still in the speaker's chair, still choosing whom to recognize and whom to ignore. After getting through the business he wanted, he eventually adjourned the biennial legislative session at 1:00 am. When the next legislature assembled in 2009, Craddick was replaced as Speaker, but he accomplished what he wanted in that 2007 session.

There's a third example we can learn from, this one a trivial action taken at a Texas PTA state convention, when the speaker made some dubious ruling or other, and a member of the audience turned to the woman sitting next to her, a local PTA parliamentarian, and asked, "Can she do that?" The local parliamentarian answered, "She just did. And you let her." The lesson here, as in all three examples, is that the power of the office is what the officeholder makes of it.

What does all this have to do with Richardson? In May, 2013, Richardson voters will directly elect their mayor for the first time since the original home rule charter was adopted in 1955. Richardson has (and will still have) a council/manager form of government with a weak mayor. The only powers spelled out for the mayor in the city charter are to be the presiding officer of the city council and to represent the city at all ceremonial occasions, or as I once dismissively put it, to wield the gavel and cut ribbons.

Depending on whom voters elect, we may soon have an opportunity to find out what a strong personality can make of a weak office. As John Marshall, Tom Craddick and that PTA chairperson demonstrated, the power of Richardson's mayor can be much more than the limited powers explicitly spelled out in city charter. Power is less constrained by what rules and regulations exist on paper than by what checks and balances others impose. The power of Richardson's mayor can be what the winning candidate of Richardson's first direct election of the mayor makes of the office. Voters should demand that the candidates spell out in detail just what they envision that might be.

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