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Professional City Manager or Strong Political Mayor?

Today Glenn Gramigna posted an account of a conversation with Pastor Darius Pridgen, in which Pridgen diagnoses the dysfunction of City Hall. Pridgen says:

If you look at the City Charter, the Mayor is supposed to be the one who lays out a vision for what Buffalo should be and then the Common Council provides checks and balances. But, we haven’t had that in recent years. We’ve had 10 Mayors, one real Mayor and nine little Mayors. And, I really think that this is part of what has been holding us back.

He’s wrong about that: While Buffalo does have strong mayor system—one in which the chief executive prepares and implements the city’s budget and has broad discretion to hire and fire department heads—there is nothing in the charter that isolates “vision” to the executive branch or which relegates the Common Council to providing “checks and balances.” Pridgen should know this: He served for a spell on the city’s charter revision commission 10 year ago, before resigning. (In part, according to fellow commissioner George Arthur, Pridgen resigned because Mayor Tony Masiello would not endorse his successful run for a seat on Buffalo’s school board. A seat from which Pridgen also resigned.)

In fact, the Common Council is invested with immense powers (including approving the mayor’s hires and budget), and is capable of setting a citywide agenda. That’s more difficult since the downsizing referendum of 2002 stripped the Council of its three citywide-elected at-large members and president, but it’s still possible. The powers invested in the Council by the city charter make it possible. Their failure to do so is the consequence of political division on between councilmembers and between the Council and the mayor’s office.

In a hypothetical world in which the Council tried to legislate into policy and budget priorities its own “vision for what Buffalo should be,” of course, it would rely on the mayor to implement that legislation. That’s the mayor’s job (“to enforce the laws therein”), but our strong mayor has the ability, like many chief executives, to subvert the will of the legislature by choosing not to execute its orders. A strong, independently elected mayor has the political cover to do so, too: Byron Brown, for example, was re-elected handily and so can claim that his policies have been approved by the majority of the city. If this Common Council, controlled by a majority that often stands in opposition to the mayor on the perhaps five percent of issues before them where there’s room for debate, decided to assert its will on one of those issues, the mayor could make a good argument for ignoring their actions.

I tend, perhaps irrationally, to believe that legislative bodies—despite their frequent chaos, horsetrading, parochialism, posturing—ought to be more powerful than the executive branch. They tend to be closer to the people they represent, and the need to build consensus protects the governed, I think, from both tyranny and truly boneheaded ideas.

That’s why I went to last night’s meeting of the Frontier Democrats at J.P. Bullfeather’s, to hear North District Councilman talk about one of his favorite ideas: Golombek believes the city should turn to a city manager form of government. In his “vision for what Buffalo should be,” the Common Council would hire an independent city manager certified by the International City/County Management Association. The city manager would run the day-to-day operations of the city: budgeting, hiring, firing, performance analysis and optimization, etc. A citywide-elected mayor would fill a largely ceremonial role. The citywide-elected city comptroller would continue to monitor government spending and procedures. And the Common Council would set the agenda.

The idea is to isolate personnel practices and the execution of city services from the vagaries of political wrangling. Police are deployed where they are needed most, not preferentially to districts that produce high voter turnouts. Capital expenditures are directed where they’re need, according to a master plan, not as political favors to friendly legislators and contractors. It may seem a radical idea, but it’s not: Nearly half of US municipalities larger than 2,500 people use some form of city manager/council government.

Golombek admits the idea is not popular in political circles—certainly not with his friend the mayor. “Opposition clear across the board,” Golombek says. “People are opposed to this, and I believe it’s because people lose power”—the power to give jobs, to direct contracts, to subvert good governance to political considerations. If so many in our dysfunctional City Hall are opposed to the idea, it must bear examining.

  • Newbomb Turk

    I agree with Pridgen’s assessment of the City’s situation, if the “one real Mayor” he’s referring to is Steve Casey, and the nine little mayors are Pigeon, Rudnick, Golisano, Rich, Townsend, Stenhouse, Lenihan, Wilmers, and Lipsey.