Concerning The Strong Mayor Thing

July 8, 2002
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Characteristic of the man, Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie seems determined about his January charter amendment proposal to bring city hall under a strong mayor form of government.

So be it. There’s much to recommend having an elected chief executive to head the executive branch of city government … and likewise that the mayor’s successors be empowered to hire and fire department heads (including the city manager), to veto city commission decisions and to review the city manager’s budget proposals.

The greatest appeal in the strong mayor form is that the mechanics of city government would respond directly to the mayor. The directly elected mayor, in turn, would be directly accountable to the voters.

A CEO-style mayor, moreover, would restore the city manager from being an un-elected politician back into what the position originally was intended to be: a specialist in the nuts and bolts of day-to-day municipal governance. Meanwhile, the legislative body — the city commission — would be there to represent a broad range of public interests and to refine, ratify and reject policies

But there is one major problem with the mayor’s proposal. He wants the job to be a full-time post.

That calls for some reflection.

“It makes no sense to me,” Logie said in his January address, “to have the door to the job of mayor open primarily for people of independent wealth, or who have been able to retire and have already accumulated enough financial reserves to give this job the time it needs. Among other things, that’s not very democratic.”

That sounds nice, but there is an argument that says the position, being executive, is best held by people who have shown executive mastery, courage and decisiveness in their occupations.

But that aside, the mayor’s words are the same justification that Congress has used for raising its own members’ pay so often and so generously — though since their freshman year in office a great many members of Congress have managed to become millionaires.

In fact — with no desire to reflect adversely on his honor’s intentions — it’s a historic political reality that money tends to flow to political power. This is a very good argument, it would seem, against transforming this post into a full-time, salaried position.

Moreover, given the existence of a full-time, big-salary city manager at city hall, a constitutionally strong mayor needn’t be a full-time mayor. In fact, a strong mayor — backed by department heads owing him personal and constitutional loyalty — could call the shots from the office or the shop where he works his day job.

It is hoped that such a position would attract citizens whose primary interest is good governance and public service.

The safe bet, however, is that the post also would attract mere power-seekers. To make the post attractive both as a way to exercise power and to make a cushy living creates a combination that begs for abuse.

Memories spring to mind of Coleman Young’s Lear jet and its Las Vegas uses.

Now perhaps it will transpire that the eventual holder of the strong mayor’s office would become so politically powerful and adept that he or she could persuade the city commission to approve a full-time salary for the job anyway.

Wouldn’t it make sense, therefore, to also consider term-limiting the post?

One suggestion would be a limit of two terms so that the chief executive officer of Grand Rapids’ city government never could concentrate too much power in his or her two hands for too long.       

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