We should soon be involved in the discussion about what form of government we want the city to take.
The mayor has told us that he will put the issue to the voters as soon as it is legal for us to consider it in an election again. That should be in May of 2015.
For most of our history we have operated with what is called the “strong mayor” form. The mayor was the chief executive of the city and had direct control over the departments. City council could reign in the mayor in but it took a majority of the city representatives to agree.
There was a time where each city representative was given responsibility for the operation of some departments. That went away in the 1980’s at the same time that we ended up with single member districts. Prior to that our aldermen, as they were known then, ran as a slate and the voters essentially picked a team to place on city council.
In the 1980’s we created the position of “chief administrative officer” (CAO). This person did most of the management of the city departments following instructions from the mayor unless city council put its foot down in which case the chief administrative officer implemented the express wishes of council. It took a majority vote of city council to fire the chief administrative officer, thus the mayor did not have complete control.
Before our recent switch to the “city manager” form of government the mayor and the city representatives were elected for two year terms. The mayor and council had to face the voters every two years and if the voters were not happy with the course the city had taken we got new elected officials.
The chief administrative officer’s job was to implement the policies handed down to him by the mayor and council. The CAO was not supposed to be an activist. He could not dream up new schemes and fool council into following them.
Under our city manager form of government we have witnessed several years where initiative was the domain of the city manager. We saw city representatives trying to work with the city manager without the knowledge necessary to manage her. The manager and city staff frequently misled council. We did not have a strong executive or legislative body to keep her in check.
Our new city manager is displaying signs that he will be far more reasonable. He has openly spoken about how in “El Paso” our wants somehow become “needs” even though we do not have a way to pay for all of them. He may turn out to be the kind of manager we need.
This is not either/or
There has been talk that the new city manager will be out of a job if the voters return us to the strong mayor form. That does not have to be the case.
If the voters do make the change, city council and the mayor could decide to ask the city manager to become the chief administrative officer. If we change the term of office for city council and the mayor back to two years from the current four we could have a situation where we have a professional manager implementing our elected leader’s policies with the voters having a reasonably frequent opportunity to agree or disagree with what is being done.
There has been much talk about the advantages of having four year terms. The proponents point to our national government where senators sit for six years and our president for four. They ignore the fact that our house representatives sit for two years.
In fact during the convention that led to our constitution there were several delegates that wanted the house terms to be less that two years. One year was a common choice, but some wanted terms as short as a few months. Their thinking was that the representatives would represent their districts more faithfully if they knew that they would be held accountable before time diminished the memories of the voters.
Both the strong mayor and the city manager form of government can be made to work.
What is important here is that the voters take an active part in the discussion and the vote.
We deserve better