Mayor proposal walks a delicate tightrope

By Bob Roegner, Inside Politics

In the mayor-council form of government, which is frequently referred to as a “strong mayor” system, the mayor is both the ceremonial head of the city and its chief executive officer with authority over all city staff and administrative functions.

I was elected mayor three times (12 years) in Auburn and the position was full-time. I won the 61 percent of the vote the third time I was elected. But as my mother asked at the time, “How does it feel knowing 39 percent of your voters aren’t very happy?”

Therein lies the first major difference in the systems. The mayor is popularly elected every four years and held responsible for most everything that goes on in the city, both good and bad. It is a more “political” system.

Auburn, Kent and Renton are all pioneer communities and have always had a strong mayor system. However, up until a few years ago, the mayor’s job was considered part-time. Renton and Kent added a city administrator to run the day-to-day operations and assist the part-time mayor. Auburn never has.

All three have since designated the mayor’s position as full-time and raised the salary accordingly.

In this form, the mayor is a policy partner with the city council and proposes laws and policies (ordinances and resolutions) to them.

State law contemplates power sharing between the mayor and council, but political reality usually shifts more power to the mayor.

The mayor can exert political pressure on the city council, unlike a city manager. The city council retains final approval in either form of government.

Not surprisingly, in a mayor-council form of government, there tends to be more friction between the two bodies, as they provide a check and balance on each other. Also, since it’s the mayor’s administration, it’s the mayor’s proposals that city staff advocate. Good city staff will help “manage” the mayor toward good policy.

A skilled mayor can dominate the community agenda and accomplish a lot. An unskilled mayor can mess it up or cause chaos pretty fast.

Frequently, a member of the city council ends up being the incumbent mayor’s next opponent (see my column on Renton’s mayor race from last fall).

The mayor has authority to hire and fire department heads and appoint citizens to boards and commissions subject to council confirmation.

Whereas city managers usually last about five years, one-term mayors are unusual and they typically can last eight to 12 years.

Redmond’s Rosemarie Ives just stepped down after 16 years, while Renton’s Kathy Koelker was defeated after four. Mayoral elections tend to be expensive and bring out every special interest group in town to choose sides (again, see my column on Renton).

If Federal Way switched to a strong mayor form of government, it would likely add $150,000-$200,000 in salary and benefits to the city budget to pay the mayor unless that person chooses to terminate the city manager. Since the two assistant city managers currently in Federal Way also each head a department, very little savings would accrue to the deletion of these positions.

Education, experience and management skills are an important element in choosing your chief executive officer. It’s a requirement for a city manager.

A candidate for mayor must only live within the city limits and be a registered voter to qualify for the office.

This limits your talent pool to your geographic area. That’s not to say there are not qualified residents; there may be, particularly if the city manager position is changed to city administrator and retained. But, the choice to retain or terminate the administrator position is not the public’s choice, it’s the mayor’s. In any case, having government management experience is still highly desirable.

In this form, the mayor would also be expected to take on the role of regional leader and represent the city on the numerous regional boards and committees. This is currently divided among council members. The mayor would be the city’s face and voice and play a more prominent role.

A mistake often made is the assumption that a full-time mayor would be able to exert more influence regionally, federally and in Olympia.

This isn’t necessarily so.

In the “inner circle” of elected officials, they know who is smart, skillful and worthy of leadership. Therefore, roles and influence are “talent” based — not based on form of government. A full-time mayor has more time to devote to this role, but historically successful regional leaders have been from both governmental systems.

Our system of accountability requires elected leaders to think in election cycles of two or four years. If the mayor is not responding to his/her constituents and thinking about the next election, he/she may not get re-elected.

On the other hand, if the mayor is thinking too much about the next election, it’s hard to think about the next generation, which is what a mayor should do.

Next week, the pros and cons of a council-manager government.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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