Idea of ‘strong mayor’ debated

On Monday, the idea of a strong mayor dominated the city Government Study Commission’s first meeting on developing a home rule charter, just as it dominated the first phase of the commission’s work, which culminated last month in a decision to suggest home rule.

The majority’s thrust is toward a full-time, well-paid mayor with the authority to sell the city, make creative development deals and tailor the bureaucracy for maximum benefit.

The challenge may be in devising a setup that allows such scope without inviting political meddling, bureaucratic disruption and even corruption.

Commission Chairman Wayne Hippo wants mayoral “leadership,” the kind that can muster a majority of council votes to back up deals he’s negotiated.

Commissioner Dave Duncan is OK with a mayor who’s full time and gets paid well, who does the “political schmoozing” and shaking hands, who’s a “chairman of the board” – but he wants to retain “professional management.”

The city could lose professional management if the voters elect an “idiot” for strong mayor, Duncan said.

That’s unlikely because a well-paid position with great scope would attract quality candidates, said Commissioner Richard Flarend.

Democracy requires trusting the voters, according to Hippo.

Commissioner Richard Fiore Jr. thinks the commission must settle at some point between strong mayor as head of a separate executive branch and strong mayor as part of city council, while considering full time versus part time and whether the city manager would be autonomous or a mayoral assistant.

There needs to be checks and balances, such as the ability of council to fire a manager appointed by the mayor, if it can muster a super-majority, Flarend said.

In charters he’s seen, council needs to ratify the mayor’s appointment of a manager, but the mayor can fire the manager unilaterally, Fiore said.

“That’s like a dictatorship,” Duncan said.

A mayor should not be able to fire department heads, Flarend said.

But if he appoints the manager, he effectively has that power, others pointed out.

A strong mayor will tend to overcome the political timidity created by the current council system, according to Flarend.

It leads to group decisions, a lack of individual credit and “everyone always running for cover” when controversy arises, he said.

A strong mayor stands alone, gets credit for what he does well and thereby has sufficient incentive to be bold, according to Flarend.

The discussion turned to risk and reward.

The current city manager leadership was “safe” and has resulted in a “smooth and stable” time, but it can lead to complacency, and it resulted in a “slow and steady decline because there has been no reason to bring up politically dicey projects,” Fiore said.

A strong mayor can “have very sharp spikes, up or down,” he said.

The current mayoral setup was “extremely limiting and frustrating,” said Hippo, who served as mayor.

A strong mayor would have the ability to represent the city “on a grander scale,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.