Vision of mayor, skills of city manager two different roles
Written by Michael Lewis on May 1, 2018
News item: Mayor Francis Suarez wants voters to dump Miami’s professional manager-commission system in November and let him run the city as strong mayor because “a strong mayor is, by definition, the people’s mayor – accountable directly to the voters and empowered to carry out their will.”
Just over a century ago big American cities were riddled with graft, run by boss mayors who distributed contracts, jobs and tax receipts among friends and donors with little concern for the public.
Such excesses gave birth to the Progressive Era. Calls for reform that began in 1901 led the public in hundreds of cities to adopt a form of government where the mayor remained the public’s leader but not its king.
Under the new council-manager governments, to make programs succeed mayors were forced to negotiate with commissioners who voted on policy while experienced professionals whose sole job was to make the city work managed the staff, carried out policies, watched expenditures and acted as impartial operators. City managers were hired to be good administrators, not to advance agendas. They had skills in managing large organizations that few career politicians have ever exercised.
That change embedded in city charters a system that worked most of the time, not a structure that would only work for the very rare political leader who also happened to have strong administrative experience and could impartially serve the commission as manager while also advancing his own agenda as mayor – an almost impossible dual role.
With that change, corruption lessened, city services improved and taxpayers gained. Mayors were no longer all-powerful. They now led by their ability to persuade others of the merit of their programs.
But while city governments as a whole became far more efficient, mayors lost much of their formal clout. They could no longer dictate results.
Mayors now had to play nicely with others, just as the president must play nicely with Congress and administrators. As they ruefully learn in office, American presidents cannot dictate. Governors face the same barrier to having their words become edicts to either state employees or legislators.
This inability to order something done long has irritated mayors. The best of them admit to voters that their word is not law. If mayors can’t work with others to accomplish their programs, they just don’t get done.
That’s inefficient. Representative government, after all, is messy. No dictator worthy of the name would tolerate it. And they don’t. They either con the public into giving them far more power or they simply seize it and do what they want, good or bad.
In fact, if we could count on a dictator to at all times be benevolent and serve only the public, dictatorship would be the most efficient way to go.
Unfortunately, we’ve never found a dictator who remains benevolent and focused on the public. Which is why governments with clear separations of powers among the executive leader (the mayor), legislators (the city commission), and administrators (the manager and his or her team) work best for a community or state or nation.
Sure, it can be frustrating to win more votes than anyone else and then not be able to dictate what happens.
Sure, some commissioners can be just plain obstreperous and hamper a mayor at seemingly every turn.
Sure, when you want to get things done the mantra of business is tempting: it’s my way or the highway, and there is only one top boss to please. At city hall, the mayor can’t order the janitor to clean his office first – the manager and his aides set the priorities on what comes first, which today might be to put buckets under leaks from the roof.
The mayor should have broad visions that fire up a community, leadership that gets everyone on the same page without the power to order them to do anything, a presence to represent the city as its spokesperson, and skills of diplomacy or arm-twisting to get everyone to cooperate – even an obstreperous commissioner.
The city manager is a different animal entirely, a professional at public administration who knows how to organize a team to carry out commission resolutions and mayoral visions and follows their lead on where the city is headed, all the while protecting the taxpayers, the employees, the city’s services and its assets, and the money. The manager’s mantra is “make it work,” while the mayor and commission worry about what “it” is to be comprised of and which way it’s headed,
If the city were a railroad, the mayor would be talking about where to lay the tracks or even if it should run on tires instead, the commission would be deciding where the stops would be and what the schedule is, and the manager would be driving the train and making everything from taking tickets to serving dinner work smoothly.
They mayor should continue to be the visionary on Miami’s railroad, Mr. Suarez, and not try to take the tickets too. Isn’t the vision thing a big enough challenge?