Form of Municipal Government
In yesterday’s post about election issues, I mentioned form of government as a possible issue. I want to explore that subject in a little greater detail.
Historically there have been four main forms of municipal government: mayor-council, council-manager, commission, and town meeting. Carbondale presently uses the council-manager system. The mayor is a voting member of the city council and presides over council meetings. The mayor and council appoint a city manager who carries out the administration of the city government. You can read about the powers and duties of the mayor in Title 1, Chapter 2, Article A of the Carbondale City Code (navigation is on the left).
In a council-manager form of government the position of mayor is usually not very important. Aside from a few symbolic functions, the mayor is essentially just the presiding member of the council. The mayor lacks veto power and generally lacks hiring and firing power. This is sometimes called a weak mayor.
When Brad Cole took office he chose to become much more active than previous mayors. Despite the lack of formal powers, he has driven the city’s agenda at least since he became mayor. Arguably, Cole was driving the agenda when he served on the council before being elected mayor. Cole uses his superior knowledge of city government and superior preparation to increase his power, and he wins more often than he loses.
This might not be controversial in itself, but Cole is a Republican mayor of a mostly Democratic community. He has been effective at getting things done, but there have been many citizens who haven’t liked what he’s done. I think many of the objections relating to form of government really have more to do with Cole’s agenda than with his active role.
If that’s true, then it’s worthwhile to ask what kind of mayor we should have. Do we want a mayor who is merely a glorified city council member, or do we want a mayor who actively leads the city?
I think we are better served by a powerful, active, and preferably full-time mayor. The mayor is an elected official accountable to the voters, while the city manager is an appointed official accountable to the city council. The distinction is important. A mayor is a political official with a political base. He or she has gone through the election process and built a network of supporters. A mayor is able to exercise leadership in a way that a city manager can’t and shouldn’t.
I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t need a city manager, just that the roles of city manager and mayor are different. A city manager provides professional administration. A mayor provides leadership. Carbondale needs both.
Comments are welcome.