Here’s where I deliver the poli-sci lecture I never got in college, the one titled “Introduction to Local Governments.” There are two types of local government, and if you are as puzzled by your city council as I was as a young reporter, it may be because you are looking at one type and expecting the other.
The type you most likely have is a council-manager form of government, where there’s a full-time city manager and a city council that includes someone called “mayor.” The one you may be expecting is a mayor-council form of government (sometimes called a “strong mayor” system), where the mayor functions both as political leader and government executive, the way the president does in Washington.
What’s the difference? Well, to begin, there’s that city manager person, who is probably a professional (in the sense that she went to college, possibly studied public administration, and may hold a certificate or two). But in truth, mayor-council forms of government have such professionals as well.
The real difference is the manager’s relationship with city employees and the city council—and the city’s council’s role in public policy.
In council-manager governments, city managers are hired—by city councils, of course—to run governments the way CEOs run corporations or superintendents run school systems. That is, with a free hand, more or less. If things work as they should, a council member’s only contact with city employees will be through the city manager or at city council meetings. (Story alert: If council members are phoning city employees directly, that’s a management problem and could be an ethics violation. Call your state’s city managers association or a nearby university’s public management department to find out why.)
Another important feature: When it comes to proposing budgets, suggesting changes in city policies, or offering new ways of structuring city departments, it’s the city manager who proposes and the council that disposes. That’s why she sits at the dais along with the council. She is constantly bringing them things to consider.
Let’s turn now to the other type, the less common mayor-council (“strong mayor”) form of government. Here the mayor is the one who is the full-time employee with responsibilities for administration and proposals of policy and procedure. AND he’s elected—not beholden to the city council for his position.
I won’t get into the strengths and weaknesses of the systems. It’s an interesting subject but not relevant for most city hall reporters. After all, you have the system you have; your job is to understand it. (If you are interested, I can point you to a good book: “More Than Mayor or Manager: Campaigns to Change Form of Government in America’s Large Cities.”)
Where I would focus your attention is to the city council, which may be the least analyzed yet important part of city government. This may seem like an odd statement because, as a city hall reporter, you’ve probably sat through countless council hearings and meetings. (I did as well.) And you’ve reported what council members said and did. You may have interviewed every council member at one time or another.
But here’s where your reporting may have fallen short: You probably haven’t tried to understand the council as a political body—how it makes decisions, who brokers compromises and deals, how the deals come about, how rewards are offered to those who go along and punishments meted out to those who don’t. And here’s a key insight: These things happen differently in council-manager systems than in mayor-council ones. And they happen differently in places that elect council members by districts than in those that elect them citywide.
Places that elect their councils citywide (and until recently that included such big cities as Detroit and Seattle) tend to have councils that work on consensus, a bit like the ruling party in a parliamentary government. After all, everyone represents the same interests and has pretty much the same power.
District elections change that calculation. People in the southern parts of the city may be very different from those in the northern, with wholly different concerns and interests. So consensus becomes more difficult in councils elected by district, and brokering becomes more common (these are deals where you get what you need, and I get what I need—even though what you get and I get may be different and unrelated).
When you have brokering, you have brokers. Who are they on the city council you cover? How do they work? When the council casts split votes, are the splits predictable? (City council votes are one of the easiest things to analyze since they’re public record.) What do the patterns tell you about politics in your city? Are the divisions ethnic, economic, geographic, generational, ideological, partisan . . . or some combination? If you go back further in time, have some council members drifted from one faction to another? If so, why?
Interview the council members. When they are divided, whom do they look to for compromises or deals? Is it the presiding officer, the mayor (who may or may not be the presiding officer), a factional member or two, a senior council member, or someone outside the council?
There’s something else about district elections that’s important. Districts often usher in something called “council member prerogative,” where the council defers to the district representative on issues relating exclusively to his district. (For a glimpse of how prerogative works in Philadelphia, read this.) What does it mean? It means the council member is pretty much the boss of his ward. If you need the city’s permission to do something in that district (such as rezone property), you need that member’s blessing or you can forget about it. Does this suggest any stories to you? It should.
If district elections change how city councils work, then mayor-council governments change things even more. This has to do with the mayor’s independence, which comes from two sources. First, he’s elected separately from the council. Second, the city charter in a strong mayor form of government almost certainly spells out the mayor’s duties, and they’re likely to be . . . well, strong.
Hold on, though. Don’t council-manager governments also have mayors? Yes, but they usually fail one or both of the independence tests. That is, they’re either not elected independently (they are selected from among the council members), or they are given few powers other than presiding at city council meetings and representing the city at ceremonies.
Compare that to a strong mayor system. These mayors manage the city bureaucracy, propose budgets, and may even have veto power over council decisions. But their greatest power may lie simply in their sense of the job and the council’s sense of its job. To understand, let’s go back to the poli-sci lecture.
In a council-manager government, the responsibilities for leading the city are divided between the council and city manager. The manager is usually the “inside” leader and expected to offer proposals on improving government performance. But it’s not common for a city manager to accept responsibility for the larger city—the place whose central issue is people and places and the interaction of the two. That usually falls to city council members who are, after all, elected by that larger city.
In a strong mayor government, the mayor assumes both sets of responsibilities. That is, he’s both inside manager and outside leader, the one who worries about government efficiency, police procedures, and budgets, but also downtown renewal, neighborhood revitalization, the city’s image, economic development, social unrest, and a dozen other things.
Where does that leave council members in a strong mayor system? Some seek to be issue entrepreneurs, searching for problems or opportunities the mayor isn’t working on. A few take up the role of political brokers within the council. But most are happy just to tend to their districts and let the mayor worry about the big things. (If you’ve ever wondered what Chicago aldermen do with their time, read this to find out.)
And what does this mean for you as a reporter or blogger? I hope it leaves you with newfound interest in your city council as a political body. Why do people run for council in your city? Where do they devote their time once elected? If the council has at-large members, do they work in different ways than district members? What happens to council members when they leave? Do they run for higher office, and are they elected? Of the past five mayors, which served on the council at some point? How does that compare with cities similar to yours? (Call a local government expert at a state university—or just do a little Internet research.) If your city’s council is a dead-end political body, why?
If it’s a council-manager form of government, who looks for projects to improve the larger city, the realm outside the city government? (As I explained in Lesson Two, most of these ideas originate outside of city government, but at a point someone in government has to become their champions.) Do members play predictable roles when a big project is proposed? Is one a blue-sky thinker, another a bottom-line worrier, another a let’s-get-it-done sort, and yet another the one who worries about its impact on the disadvantaged? How do they come to agreement?
If nothing else, consider this good training as a journalist. What you’re doing is making the obvious apparent—looking at something everyone knows something about but few truly understand or appreciate. This is what great journalists, like Robert Caro and, before him, John Gunther, did so well. And who knows? If you get really good at understanding how your city council works, we may ask you to move to Washington . . . and explain Congress to us.
Footnotes: One of the most interesting stories in council-manager systems is the role of the mayor. If she is given the title by a vote of council members, it signifies something. But what? That this person is a good representative for the city? That she’s good at presiding (which usually means she’s viewed as fair)? Or is it something else? Good questions for the mayor . . . and her fellow council members.
And nothing is more fascinating than a mayor who doesn’t know what kind of government he has—or knows but won’t accept it. You see this sometimes in cities with council-manager governments that elect their mayors independently or on county commissions with an elected chair. The mayor or commission chair comes to office thinking he’s in charge of management and policy development, only to find a council and city manager who won’t defer to him.
In Dallas, Laura Miller spent one miserable term acting like a strong mayor and berating the city council for not making her one. Miller never accepted her role. Occasionally, some mayors do and we say of them, after a while, that they’ve “grown in office.”