A few years ago, we were asked to support a strong mayor proposal, crafted by our city’s civic elite. We were told it was a well thought-out initiative that would create accountability and balance. (For the record, I agreed with Mayor Jerry Sanders on the issue — that it was just a bad idea). A few years into the “strong mayor” experiment, we are being told that there were some problems with the initial language. According to the countless charter reform groups in town, now is the time to fix these problems by making a bigger, more powerful, centralized city government.
One of the central ideas in strong mayor reform is adding anywhere from 1-3 “at large” City Council seats. Apparently, the individuals that are drafting these new ideas have been witnessing something on the City Council that I have missed … all of those deadlocked votes. In fact, I can’t count the number of times our city has come to a complete standstill because of those dang 4-4 votes. So, yes, let’s spend millions on creating a new council seat that doesn’t even represent the neighborhoods. We need that voice on the council. So we get fewer cops on the street, fewer pot holes filled, our children can spend fewer hours at the library, but now we will have someone who can break all of those ties at the City Council.
And, on top of that, we need to make sure our strong mayor has even more power. Apparently, he needs complete and total budget authority. He needs to unilaterally decide what is best for your neighborhood without notifying your community beforehand. He doesn’t want to hear from your community-elected city councilperson, community activists or anyone in the public before he makes deeper cuts into city services. I have a better idea: how about holding the mayor accountable for creating a balanced, realistic budget in the first place? Then there would be no need for mid-year cuts. Of course, that would require an open and honest assessment about city revenue and expenditures at the beginning of the fiscal year.
I have a different idea for reform: let’s empower our neighborhoods. If there is a Charter Reform Committee it should be stocked with neighborhood and community activists, not lobbyists and big donors. There are real concerns out in our neighborhoods: concerns about traffic, over-development and zoning regulations, concerns about keeping our parks and libraries open, concerns about whether someone will respond when we call 911, concerns about gangs and crime, concerns about whether our children will get sick if they drink out of the water faucet. These are the problems we should be addressing through reform, not how to create a bigger, more centralized City Hall.