Editorial: Strong Mayor Form of Government

Re: the recent editorial by John Fannin, “Strong mayor form of government would be ideal for city of Sunnyside,” dated Oct. 3, 2007. Mr. Fannin's suggestion of changing our form of government because of the recent issues with the city manager or the upcoming budget challenges does not make sense.

First, changing the form of government is something that should not be taken lightly. I believe that the good citizens of Sunnyside made the right choice when they opted to become the first city in Washington to adopt the Council-Manager form of government and here is how I got there.

The Council-Manager form of government is one of the few original American contributions to political theory. Approximately 90 years old, it's a proven form of government and its adaptability is without question easier than that of its counterparts. Today it is the most popular choice of structure among U.S. communities with populations of 2,500 or greater.

The Council-Manager form not only encourages open communication between citizens and their government, but under this form each member of the governing body (in this case the City Council) has an equal voice. Under the Mayor-Council (or as it is more commonly known “Strong-Mayor”) form of government, political power is concentrated in the mayor, which means that other members of the council actually relinquish some of their policy-making power and influence. As the saying goes in the Council-Manager form the Mayor is first among equals, his/her vote is no different than mine or any other member of council.

With the Council-Manager form we eliminate partisan politics from the municipal hiring, firing and contracting decisions and in essence give the elected officials the ability to govern the city, without getting caught up in the day to day operations, which as we all know like any other business can be a detractor when it comes to making policy.

Professional Managers are just that, professionals, they didn't get their job by being able to successfully navigate a political election process, but instead by having years of experience and training. Under the Strong-Mayor form of government more often than not, the individual elected by the people lacks appropriate training, education and experience in municipal administration and finance, and can sometimes be hard-pressed to oversee the delivery of essential community services, deal with the ever increasing demands placed on local government by federal and state mandates, as well as the growing demand for reporting requirements.

Under the strong-mayor form, there is a temptation to make decisions regarding the hiring and firing of key department head positions – such as police chief, public works director, and finance director – based on the applicant's political support rather than his or her professional qualifications. If you need proof, just Google “Mayor hires _______” (replace blank with brother, sister, political benefactor), and you quickly get the picture.

One of the other reasons I feel the Council-Manager form is the best choice for our city is that under this form of government the powers of “Special Interests” are diffused. We have all read the stories about how some political lobby has spent ridiculous amounts of money on trying to push their agenda through our Congress. With the Council-Manager form of government you remove the ability of special interests from using their money and political power to influence a single elected official, you provide a balanced approach to community decision making, and you force individuals and organizations with a political agenda to secure a majority vote of the Council.

If you still have doubts on whether our current form is the correct choice, then one only need look at the recent issues with Benton City to come to the obvious conclusion. Had we as the City Council had to remove a “Strong Mayor” – the process would have been ten fold, and would have cost the taxpayers of this great city much more than a severance package. Strong Mayor's must be removed by a Re-Call Election, this process alone can take months, and in some cases years. Then let's not forget the costly court battle which almost always ensues.

And for those of you thinking that the Strong-Mayor form is superior to our form, then ask yourself this, why then are so many Strong-Mayor governments adding Chief Administration Officers (CAO's) or City Administrators to their city staff. The reason is obvious, having a professional to manage the day to day operations is essential to good government.

No, Mr. Fannin, changing our form of government is not the answer. The answer lies in ensuring that elected officials hire a qualified individual to manage the day to day operations of the city, and as one of my colleagues recently said to me, we have “Fearless Communication” from our city staff and our citizens.


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James A. Restucci is the author of this blog. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 Internal License.

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