Mayor and manager roles are incompatible – split the job
Written by Michael Lewis on June 28, 2016
Commissioner Rebeca Sosa is moving to rework county hall by splitting the jobs of mayor and manager.
Don’t fall asleep on me here. This isn’t minutia. It could be pivotal to leadership of a county in the global spotlight that’s larger than many nations in economy, size and population.
We rolled manager and mayor into one job four years ago. By luck, that’s done no harm yet, because Mayor Carlos Gimenez is actually a solid government manager. But we aren’t likely for decades to find another former commissioner who had also run a major government as a hired hand and is a nuts-and-bolts guy. It’s luck, pure and simple.
Commissioner Sosa didn’t say so, but separating the jobs again would remove the luck and set up structure that will be vital when a mayor with different strengths who hasn’t administered big government wins office.
Before we merged two opposite roles, we hired professional county managers to carry out policies set by our legislative branch, the county commission, and actions ordered by our executive branch, the mayor. Control was always with the mayor and commission, never the manager, who could be fired anytime.
The mayor, as today, was elected as our county’s face, the person who had the bully pulpit to rally the public and other elected officials toward major actions, set out broad county vision, greeted dignitaries and guided us in crises. You could liken it to the national role of president.
The manager’s role required very different skills and personality. The manager – the good ones – ran a staff of 25,000, 88% in union jobs, with an even hand without regard to outside pressures. The manager had to slot people in the right roles and be sure they performed, but also had to protect staff from public or internal retribution.
Most important, the manager had to carry out commission policy and the mayor’s orders. Managers made no policy but administered the policies of others. They had to report to both commissioners and the mayor, follow directives and provide information.
A manager also had to know every function, from police and fire to sewers and water, from land use and planning to housing, from air and sea ports to budgeting and fiscal controls. It’s the job a large company’s chief operating officer does.
That manager’s job sounds nothing like the mayor’s, does it?
The mayor is the outside gal or guy, rallying the public, attending gatherings, putting out the county’s message, while at the same time politicking to get commissioners aboard on major visions, programs the county needs.
The manager, meanwhile, is Ms. or Mr. Inside, planning and carrying out policies and making what the mayor and commission decide work well, at lowest cost and highest impact.
Stitching the two jobs together was a big error, akin to asking the principal ballerina to also run the theater or the star quarterback to also manage ticket sales and the stadium.
But while Mayor Gimenez has been a good manager, that hasn’t always helped him lead as a mayor.
For example, as manager, the commission frequently orders Mr. Gimenez to report in 60 days or carry out commission policy. But the mayor is our highest elected official, not an employee. He should stand on his own as a power and a leader, one who needs to line up commission votes for his policies – a stance that is undercut by the job requirement that he also follow commission orders as manager.
This is one of four major fixes that county structure needs (the others are paying commissioners fairly, not the present $6,000; electing them from districts but with countywide voting, to reduce parochialism; and incorporating the whole county into cities to free every commissioner to look at big picture opportunities).
Depending on the people involved, county government might work well even with all these structural flaws or could occasionally stumble with even the best structure. But the right format vastly increases the odds of better public service.
Facing a balky committee, Ms. Sosa this month delayed action on a mayor-manager split to instead study how other big counties handle that issue and look at other changes. But she made it clear that she wants to move fast, though change wouldn’t take effect until 2020.
Oddly, as Ms. Sosa moves to set a county flaw aright, Miami commissioners are being asked to look at city charter changes that would merge the roles of manager and mayor there, copying the error that Ms. Sosa is seeking to erase.
One principle applies in both city and county: a mayor should be a strong visionary leader with clout, a manager should a solid internal organizer who sets no policy but carries it out with brains and backbone. Those aren’t the same skills or the same job. Separate them.