This terminology doesn’t express the depth of the problem that the Rio Rancho Charter Review Commission is currently dealing with. To understand it we have to see where the vested power is in each of these two systems.
In a “Mayor-strong” system the power rests primarily with Mayor and Council. The Mayor though would not be a member of the governing body, and instead comprises a separate branch of government; the executive branch with his own staff and holds veto power over the council.
The “Mayor-weak” system is the system we have, where the Mayor is a member of the governing body, but has no vote (except to break ties) and has no staff or veto power. Here the power rests in the Council and City Manager. However, in this model, the City Manager holds a great deal of power even over the council.
It’s relatively easy to see how this could be a power struggle between elected officials; the Mayor and the Council, but flying under the radar is the power wielded by the City Manager and by extension the City Attorney. The libertarian position in vesting political power is to keep it decentralized with numerous checks and balances regardless of who holds those positions. The trick is striking the right balance.
Under the current system, the City Manager (who technically serves at the behest of the council) can play governing body members like a fiddle and do (or not do) pretty much whatever he wants, with the Attorney doing his bidding. Because the only action the council can take is to fire the city manager, this creates a political powerhouse unchecked by the voters rendering the governing body virtually impotent.
Hybrids are thing now.
Santa Fe has recently adopted a sort of hybrid between the two systems where the Mayor is given sole authority over the City Manager and City Attorney. This would mean that the manager and attorney work for the Mayor and can be fired by the Mayor. But does this strike the right balance?
I can imagine a time when the Mayor and the City Manager got a long quite well, and the Manager was making things very difficult for the council. Where’s the recourse here? Should both the Mayor and the Council have the power to fire the city manager and attorney? This almost sounds impossible as the City Manager then must “serve two masters.” But remember, this is a government and the best way to keep corruption at bay is to ensure that those with power are cycled through regularly. Making the job security of the city manager somewhat tenuous isn’t a bad idea. The City Attorney too is a very powerful position and thus should also be a tenuously held position.
By allowing both the Mayor or a majority of the council fire the city manager and attorney, it allows for a greater possibility that corruption won’t stand long in these offices either. Their jobs would still be the same, but the attorney would report to the Mayor and Council and uncouple the unelected powerhouse created by the city manager and attorney.
Decentralization is key
In addition, decentralizing some of their power allows for a more secure checks and balances. (See image)
For starters, rather than having the City Manager direct and supervise all city departments, the Mayor (whose purpose is promoting the city) can direct and supervise Economic Development & Business Relations and by extension the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
This would allow the Mayor to put into action plans he has rather than hoping the City Manager will agree with him and direct staff to that end. This also gives our new full time something more to do than go to ribbon cuttings, parades, and kiss babies. If we’re going to call him a full time mayor, pay him a full time salary, and expect him to make a difference, then he should really have some responsibilities without giving him the full-fledged powerhouse of a Mayor-strong system.
Finally, as the primary person writing legislation for the governing body, there are times when the personal interests of the city attorney conflict with council’s job of amending ordinances coming before them. The resulting dynamic would require her to help councilors deconstruct her ordinances.
There are two ways to solve this problem: Relieve the city attorney of this duty, cut her pay, and hire policy making staff, or provide a discretionary fund solely for the purpose of seeking outside council for creating policies and amendments to the city attorney’s legislation. This discretionary fund would be far less than hiring new staff, but would create an avenue for doing the job the citizens elected to do even if it’s in disagreement with the attorney.
No adequate substitute for vigilance
Overall, shifting the balance of power won’t guarantee freedom from corruption; it can help, it just won’t guarantee it. At the end of the day it takes strong personalities who understand the principles of freedom and a willingness to stand for what’s right (even if they are the only one standing). There is no adequate substitute for individuals who are willing to adapt and overcome. It’s also important to realize that decentralization is not intended to make government run more smoothly. Government in a free society is necessarily adversarial because there always will be tension between self-rule and state-rule.
If you want to hear more discussion on this topic, you can attend the next Charter Review Committee mtg. on April 9th, at 6:00pm.