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Mayor needs more power in new City Charter

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What the Devil won't tell you

Mayor needs more power in new City Charter

Power too diffuse on Council: give the mayor tools to govern

  • City Hall
    Bill Morrow/FlickrCity Hall

My father sits on a City Council citizens committee in Bedford, Texas. Dear God, you would think he was mayor the time he put into it. I hear about it all the time. The latest is, he's also a Republican flummoxed by the Tea Party in the Tea Party capital of the world — Tarrant County. I know it is long and grueling work, for no money and little of the prestige that accompanies the title "council member" at a Tri-City Chamber luncheon.

Having a son who covered municipal government for so long and worked in local politics means with me, our father-son talks can get all geeked up — not on the World Series, but on how to help folks south of the freeway without referring to those neighborhoods as "the South Side." Oh, the Texas bubbas get pissed.

And so Tucson citizens Charter Review Committee, I feel you.

My general beef with a citizens committee brainstorming Charter change ideas for the City Council to pass on to voters is simply that they didn't get bold enough.

I've seen polling information to suggest a significant trust deficit faces the mayor and City Council. Though that information is a few years old, my political antennae says unto me that in the mean time, voters haven't seen the Council across candlelight and swooned.

Why would I say such a thing? Well, why did the Council seem to think it need a citizens committee to come up with what ideas that essentially clarify and nudge? They could have made these recommendations themselves. They didn't because without the imprimatur of "Hey, this wasn't us," voters would likely reject them out of hand. That to me, doesn't suggest a trust deficit as much as it reveals one.

Most of their recommendations are perfectly fine. The only one that seemed like fertile future ground for journalists winning awards because of the trouble the Council could get into is the half-measure of giving the Council the ability to bypass voters and sink sales tax dollars into bonds but not giving the Council the legal authority to raise the sales tax beyond its current two-cent limit. The idea strikes me as a way to put even more burden on a creaking general fund.

The tendency to be demure when bold action is warranted is where the committee fails. Elections need to be more competitive and the mayor needs more power — a lot more.

Blake's Accountability Axiom

They are both a matter of Blake's Accountability Axiom (also found in every management training manual in the world but I named it) R x P=A. Responsibility multiplied by power equals accountability. Giving people a job to do, the power to do it and hold them accountable for the results.

The committee understands the concept perfectly and is recommending the Charter be changed to reflect it by strengthening the city manager's hand. Under the Charter changes proposed, the manager works for the City Council as an at-will employee, so they can fire him tomorrow for whatever reason. The manager would then have the ability to hire and fire his senior team with Council approval. The politicians are not to interfere with the manager, and are to work exclusively through him in terms of "direction" (here's what I want you to do). The Council has sole policy-making authority while the manager and staff carry that out.

Chaos, of course, ensues because that's basically pie in the sky crap and politics is always about the ability to run and gun. In 1994, the Pima County Board of Supervisors created a trimmed back position for county manager and renamed it county administrator. Then they hired Chuck Huckelberry. Someone forgot to show Huckelberry the flow chart and read him the fine print because he's stuck around for 21 years and, well, Boss Hogg had less power over Hazzard County (Dukes of Hazzard reference, shoot me, I'm old). The guy can run and gun.

I would argue though, it's good to have a set of rules as a reference to provide something of a true north.

The manager now has the power to match his responsibility and so accountability lives.

Actually, the committee recommends meshing up the manager's power to match the accountability they have always had but don't enjoy for long. In the era Huckelberry era, Tucson has been through six city managers: Mike Brown, Luis Guitierrez, Jim Keene, Mike Hein, Mike Letcher and Richard Miranda.

The city manager faces a rough go in Tucson because when voters aren't happy the typically all-Democratic City Council needs someone to blame that isn't one of them. The city manager looks like a good enough target. Accountability suffers at the council level because the Power Axiom is inverted.

R/P = A. Responsibility divided by power equals less accountability.

The power is divided seven ways on the City Council, none with more and none with less. Without a partisan divide to sort of force folks to work together, power gets diffused so accountability can never fully be achieved.

That's where the mayor should come in because someone needs the power to be held accountable.

The mayor has no appreciable power in Tucson. A mayor can unilaterally put something on the agenda. That's it. The mayor can't vote unless there is a tie so he's not a friend. He can't withhold an item from the agenda so he's not an enemy. Tucson's mayor is neither loved nor feared, they are just regarded. At the annual figurehead convention, Tucson's mayor gets bullied by Mr. Clean and the Queen of Sweden.

All of you who remember the mayor of some big eastern city being the chief executive need to remember how the strong manager model works. It was established by western progressives as a reaction against the machine politics back east rife with the spoils system. It creates essentially a board of directors that is the mayor and council over a city manager running a professional staff without political interference. The system is set up to prevent Councilman Morlock from showing up at the city attorney's office and saying "this is my boy Nuncio, put him in charge of the criminal division." Cities are starting to tweak this model and experiment with hybrids — especially as they grow — and Tucson would do well to do the same.

The committee had a great idea: Giving the mayor a veto. They included this as an alternative to giving the mayor a vote but unless some legal provision forbids the mayor from having executive and legislative power (and I don't know why it would) the mayor could have both. The veto would give the mayor super-legislative power that he could wield at his discretion to force Council member to come up with solutions. It would give him more power. Personally, I would limit the veto to ordinances so the mayor doesn't get all entangled with who gets what in contracts from the city and expand it to give the mayor a veto over the agenda item.

Then the mayor would have power. Then the mayor would have accountability. A mayor with a control over the agenda, a vote and a veto can think of all sorts of ways to use those powers to wheel and deal so that power is not diffused among seven and then sloughed off on the manager when it's convenient. The thrust would be upwards into the hands of a single elected official. The voters would have accountability and the mayor — whose salary is twice that of other Council members — can earn his or her pay.

Two other points about the proposed charter change: One eliminates the city's secondary property tax, which is exclusively used for bonding and can only be increase through a vote of the people. It is most assuredly not a tax increase. The committee has also failed to point out in its recommendation how the state still limits cities' bonding capacity. All the change does is lift the cap to the state limit. It does not eliminate it. It's smart.

Also the committee agreed to a preamble, which has no legal force, to outline the goals of the charter. Here is where they put the transparency and access to government language. Meanwhile the committee put funding the arts in enumerated powers. No, this is not insignificant. The enumerated powers section has the force of law. The whole goal of the committee was to bolster trust between the Council and the people. I would strongly suggest giving transparency and public access the force of law in the Charter, even if it is outlined in state law.

The citizens committee did yeoman's work, becoming experts in all matters of municipal government and really trying to match reforms to a perceived mood of stakeholders' willingness to swallow them. My gripe is that they didn't get more creative. Matching political action to stakeholder acceptance has informed the Council's decline in public perception. The committee could have gone bigger because I guarantee the Council won't get creative for them. If they were so inclined, they wouldn't have set up the committee in the first place.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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