Management & Labor

The Mayor-Manager Conundrum

El Paso has always been a little bit eccentric. When the state university campus was built there, in the 1920s, the local leaders chose Bhutanese architecture, based on an obscure style used in the Himalayas in medieval times.
by | October 2004
 

El Paso has always been a little bit eccentric. When the state university campus was built there, in the 1920s, the local leaders chose Bhutanese architecture, based on an obscure style used in the Himalayas in medieval times. For the administration building, they made a replica of a dzong--a 12th-century Nepalese fortress. Nothing like it existed in the United States at the time, and nothing does now.

There's a reason why El Paso frequently bucks common trends: It's too isolated to worry much about them, or sometimes even to know about them. El Paso is an outpost of 700,000 people on the Mexican border, wedged between the Rio Grande and the lonely Texas plains, remote from any other city of significant size. It isn't even in the same time zone as the state capital.

So perhaps it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that El Paso's civic establishment, dissatisfied with the way local government had been operating, recently decided to try something brand new: Put a city manager in charge. With all due respect to the many virtues of the city manager system, it is not exactly a hot innovation. In the past few years, many cities around the country have been debating whether to dispense with managers and move to strong-mayor governments, in which administrative responsibility and political accountability are combined in a single elected leader. Switching to a city manager is an unusual decision for any large municipality these days. Nevertheless, that is what El Paso chose to do.

To a large extent, this move is the personal project of the city's current mayor, Joe Wardy, a trucking company executive who unseated his predecessor last year on a platform featuring his argument that city manager government was an idea whose time had come in El Paso. Once in office, he pushed for a referendum to make the change, and the measure was approved decisively earlier this year. Last month, Joyce Wilson arrived from Arlington County, Virginia, to become the city's first appointed manager.

And Wardy became a chief executive without anything much to execute. He no longer has managerial control over any of the city's 32 departments and 6,000 employees, and he doesn't have a vote on the city council. He can veto legislation, but a majority on the council can override him. He does get to keep his staff of six, but it is not entirely clear what they will do. The mayor will effectively be reduced, as mayors in manager-run cities often are, to the role of cheerleader and external promoter of his city's image and interests.

The one significant new perquisite of mayoral office is a four-year term; Wardy wanted longer terms for both the mayor and the eight council members, and the electorate went along with this. The longer terms are an important part of the story, and go a long way toward explaining El Paso's restlessness with its previous form of government. More than almost any big city in the United States, El Paso has been addicted to changing leadership. Between 1969 and 1979, it had eight different mayors; then, after a brief period of stability in the following decade, it has had six mayors in the past 15 years, three of whom served one short term and then left.

In a city-manager government where the manager remains in place through succeeding administrations, this might not have been a serious problem. In a government where the mayor is the chief administrator, musical chairs is a dangerous game. "The way it's been," Wardy argued earlier this year, "the mayor and city council change every two years, so the direction changes can really be drastic."

At least as important as the issue of turnover, though, was the common perception that El Paso's way of operating was unbusinesslike-- inefficient, undisciplined and unsuited to a modern, rapidly growing metropolis. Wardy made this argument, and so did the citizens committee that formed to lobby in favor of the charter revision. Times were changing, and the city needed to be run more like a business.

Sooner or later, this argument turns up in virtually every debate over what form of government any city should have. It was central to the initial growth of the city manager system early in the 20th century, promoted largely by urban chambers of commerce and other corporate interests. Replace the partisan strong mayor with a nonpartisan manager, they argued, and cities would conduct themselves efficiently- -the way private corporations do.

Curiously, this same argument is being raised elsewhere in the country right now in cities that are pondering whether to make the opposite move: Junk their nonpartisan managers and go back to an old- fashioned strong mayor. San Diego will vote next month on a proposed switch to strong-mayor government; Dallas is expected to have a referendum on the subject next spring. And in both cases, it is the business community that is leading the charge, arguing that city manager regimes are unsuited to the realities of 21st-century urban politics.

In San Diego, which has had a city manager since 1931, the Chamber of Commerce, the City Club and a committee of financial and media CEOs have joined Mayor Dick Murphy in blaming the manager-run system for the current huge budget shortfall and the fact that the city pension plan is seriously underfunded. They claim that recent city managers have lacked the political strength or mandate to deal effectively with excessive demands from public employee unions. "Giving additional authority to the mayor and the council is something the business community wants," Chamber of Commerce vice-president Mitch Mitchell said recently. "That will make it definitive who is operating the city."

The issues are a little different in Dallas, but the lineup is similar. Downtown business leaders argue that the current form of municipal government, with 15 city council members nearly all representing parochial neighborhood interests, and a mayor with little power other than a single council vote, leaves no one responsible for the interests of downtown or the city as a whole. Local newspaper columnist Jim Schutze calls Dallas a "weak mayor, weak council, weak manager" form of government. "We're a football team with no coach," he complained recently.

In fairness to city managers, it is appropriate to point out some numbers that portray their situation a little more positively. About half of all American municipalities with populations over 2,500 currently use the city manager system, and that represents a substantial increase compared with 20 years ago. In 2000, when Governing graded the 35 largest cities in the country on their management practices, the two top performers, Phoenix and Austin, both happened to be long-time bastions of city manager government.

On the other hand, you have to pay attention to momentum, which is clearly moving in the other direction. If San Diego and Dallas decide to trade in their city managers for strong mayors, they will join a rather extensive list of large places that have gone that way in the past decade: Oakland, Cincinnati, Hartford, St. Petersburg, Richmond, Sioux Falls and Spokane, to name the most prominent ones. A list of major cities that have moved the other way--to a city manager system-- is quite a bit shorter.

What's clear from all the recent charter reform developments--and especially those in El Paso, San Diego and Dallas--is that the disparate advocates of urban charter reform are pleading for the same thing: a local government with the virtues of a successful modern private enterprise. The paradox is that they offer wildly different schemes for how to create it.

But there's a reason for that paradox, and you can get at it by asking a simple but crucial question: What is it that people admire about successful corporate management, anyway? Primarily, it's two things--efficiency and accountability. We respect companies that get their work done with a minimum of wasted effort and resources, and we admire companies where the top executives are held firmly responsible for their performance and results. Ideally, a corporation can aspire to both of these virtues, at least for a while.

But a city really can't. It can hire a manager to replace wasteful political patronage with non-partisan administration, but in doing that it gives up the benefits of having highly visible political leadership. Or it can choose a strong mayor, and get the leader it is looking for. But as often as not, that brings in an element of managerial cronyism and politically tainted policy decisions. Either way, something seems amiss.

These points are made extremely well in a recent article in the Public Administration Review by three prominent scholars: H. George Frederickson, Gary Johnson and Curtis Wood. They portray trends in local government as being essentially cyclical. In some places at some moments, partisanship and waste seem to be damaging local public life and a consensus develops that what's needed is a good dose of efficiency. In other places, government may be running smoothly but there's no public figure with the credibility and the clout to make tough decisions and get them accepted. So a powerhouse mayor begins to look pretty good. Sometimes a city will react to these frustrations by making a 180-degree turn in its rules. In other cases, it will split the difference and try to blend the two systems, creating what Frederickson and his colleagues call a "Type 3" city. The results of these experiments have been mixed.

The truth is there is no perfect system for all cities and all seasons. Almost any set of rules can work under the right circumstances. Phoenix has done extraordinarily well under a rather strict system of city-manager government. Chicago has prospered under the relatively benign political autocracy of the Daley family.

Political problems being largely problems of human nature, no arrangement of duties is going to solve them all. In a great many cities, "reform" is always going to consist of whatever system hasn't been tried there lately. "What you really need," says Terrell Blodgett, an eminent public administration scholar and an adviser to El Paso, "is a strong mayor, a strong council and a strong city manager. But that's easier said than done."

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