Mayor unhappy with limits of power

Until Monday, every guest of the city Government Study Commission who had given advice on the allocation of authority between staff and City Council recommended keeping the current strong-manager form of government.

On Monday, perhaps unsurprisingly, Mayor Bill Schirf recommended the strong-mayor form instead, citing his own feelings of powerlessness during his four years in office.

His council colleague, Dave Butterbaugh, recommended keeping the status quo.

“I’m the mayor of the largest city between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh,” Schirf told the commission, which is evaluating the city’s current form of government to help it decide whether to recommend home rule, and if so, what kind. “And I have no car, no office, no cellphone.”

He’s not permitted to even go in and talk to a department head, he added.

Altoona’s mayor should be a CEO, like the mayors of most other big cities, he said. That will enable them to execute their vision, he said.

They should get paid like the current manager, while the manager – who would still run day-to-day operations – would get paid much like a department head with extra responsibilities, he said.

“A manager manages, a mayor leads,” Schirf said.

Butterbaugh said the current setup is just fine, although he admitted it took a while after coming on council to believe it.

A strong manager gives the city stability because the manager is unelected, which means he doesn’t need to take account of “political ramifications” in making decisions, Butterbaugh said.

Conversely, strong mayors who take office for the first time might spend half their first term coming to grips with the job, he said.

“They get nervous enough when a new council comes on,” he said. “Imagine getting a new CEO every four years.”

The city would have had to seek the protection of the Act 47 distressed municipalities program years ago, if it had not had professional management, he said.

“If you’re going to err, err on the side of a strong manager,” Butterbaugh said. “You’ll have that stability.”

Commission member Richard Flarend suggested that a “hybrid” might make sense – a mayor who had the power to appoint an otherwise strong manager, who would thus be subject to easier recall. Currently, it takes a majority of council to dismiss a manager, and getting such a majority might be difficult, no matter what the performance, Flarend suggested.

Commission member – and former mayor – Wayne Hippo also suggested a middle ground.

The city government should somehow empower the mayor to “be more of a leader,” he said.

Such a mayor could communicate ideas with other municipalities and the business community.

But before deciding, the commission needs to listen and then to investigate how other models – from the pure manager to the strongest mayor – have done it, and how their setup has affected their success, he said.