Nick Gradisar used to joke that if Martians landed in his hometown of Pueblo, Colo., and said, “Take us to your leader,” he wouldn’t know what to say. That’s because Pueblo didn’t really have a leader. Nobody had held the position of mayor since 1954, when the city did away with the practice of designating the council president as mayor. Before that, no one had actually been elected to the post since 1911. Pueblo, population 110,000, is the only American city of comparable size that functioned for the past 65 years without even a figurehead mayor in the corner office.
That’s no longer the case. Gradisar fought for years to change the system, got that done in a referendum in 2017, and then ran for the job himself. He won, and this January he was sworn in as the city’s first elected mayor in more than a century. Now Pueblo not only has a mayor but a strong one: Gradisar has the authority to make all the executive decisions, handle the important personnel appointments and prepare the budget. The city manager who did some of those things under the old system has already cleaned out his desk.
You’re probably wondering just how big a deal this is. After all, cities all over the country have mayors who function largely in a ceremonial capacity while the council or manager takes care of the administrative side. But as the citizens of Pueblo finally realized, there’s a difference between a ceremonial mayor and no mayor at all. When corporate executives made site-location visits to Pueblo and asked if they could meet the mayor, they had to be told something like, “Um, we don’t have one.” Any management consultant will tell you that’s not a very good way to impress a CEO.
It’s easy to see why Pueblo might have wanted to try something different. Once the second-largest city in Colorado, it slipped to ninth in recent decades after its main employer, a huge steel mill, largely shut down. Its current unemployment rate is the highest among Colorado cities. None of those things can be blamed directly on missing-mayor government. But taken together, they persuaded the city’s electorate to move to a strong-mayor system after rejecting the idea decisively eight years earlier.
They didn’t have to go as far as they did. They could have just slapped a new title on the council president and left everything else the same. But they felt the need to make a bolder move. “Economic development is a huge issue for that city,” says Sam Mamet, the longtime executive director of the Colorado Municipal League. “They wanted someone in charge.”
Pueblo is an extreme case, but quite a few cities that long had weak-mayor governments have gone strong-mayor in the past couple of decades. Colorado Springs, just up the road from Pueblo, is one. Among the others are Cincinnati, Oakland, Calif., Richmond, Va., and St. Petersburg, Fla.
If you mention this to people at the International City/County Management Association, they will remind you that the city manager system is the most popular form of urban government in America, used in 55 percent of all jurisdictions, and gaining new adherents all the time. That is true. But it doesn’t apply to the largest places: Of the 30 most populous U.S. cities, 21 operate under some form of strong-mayor regime.
And for all the cogent arguments the city management people have made for the past 100 years about the virtues of nonpartisan administrators over politicized and personally ambitious mayors, it remains true that the best strong mayors are the heroes of urban history, the leaders that cities like Cincinnati and Oakland and Richmond longed to produce.
Anyone who has read about Fiorello LaGuardia as mayor of New York in the 1930s, or better yet seen a video clip of him in action -- making a hundred decisions in a single day, fully absorbed in his work far into the night, riding all over the city to investigate crime and fire scenes, wheedling billions of dollars for roads and bridges out of the federal government -- anyone who has seen this will find it hard to resist the idea of LaGuardia as the gold standard in American urban government. Or consider a less dramatic example: Boston Mayor Tom Menino, whose mildly autocratic mayoral regime in the 1990s and 2000s was instrumental in resuscitating Boston to prosperity and coolness. And of course there are the Mayors Daley of Chicago. You may love them or hate them, but it’s hard to ignore the transformation of that city from an overgrown Midwest factory town to a global metropolis over 40 years of combined Daley stewardship.
Other, less-celebrated cities have also made impressive advances in recent years by managing to elect a string of honest and competent strong mayors one after another. Nashville is one example (with the sole exception of Mayor Megan Barry, who in 2018 resigned in scandal after less than three years in office); Indianapolis is another. Those are examples that any aspiring metropolis is bound to look at.
There have been a few highly visible strong-mayor disasters over the same period. Detroit kept Coleman Young in office for 20 years, starting in 1974, and watched as he all but urged the middle class to leave the city, with ruinous consequences. Kwame Kilpatrick, one of his successors, was sentenced to a 28-year term in federal prison. When strong-mayor government produces the wrong leaders, there are few protections against its abuse.
At the same time, clever politicians elected mostly as figureheads in weak-mayor cities have learned how to make the most of those situations for their own and their constituents’ benefit. Freed from the responsibility of managing city services and departments, they have built reputations as dynamic representatives on economic development and national political issues. Henry Cisneros wrote the book on this in San Antonio in the 1980s; Julián Castro rode a weak-mayor position in the same city 20 years later into a federal cabinet position and a presidential candidacy. In Phoenix, Phil Gordon and Greg Stanton took historically ceremonial mayoralties and used them to promote and develop a successful public transit system.
When you add it all up, though, it seems fair to conclude that the original idea of city-manager government, developed by Richard Childs in the early 20th century as a progressive solution to urban problems, has not traveled very well to the 21st. Childs’ idea was that the city manager would be an unshakably nonpolitical presence, making decisions on the strength of statistics and hard evidence and avoiding partisan infighting like the plague. The belief survived longer than the reality. Most city managers found it impossible to stay out of politics, even if they were able to eschew formal partisanship. Generally conservative by temperament, they tended to run their cities as offshoots of the local chamber of commerce, often settling on the important decisions with business leaders over morning coffee at a friendly diner in the shadow of city hall. It was nonpartisan government, but it was also, at least by today’s standards, closed government. It isn’t practical now in any city of decent size.
Over time, strong-mayor and weak-mayor government have tended to move closer together. Many places that used to elect ribbon-cutting figureheads have gradually given their mayors additional tools to work with. At the same time, places that once dumped virtually every form of governmental responsibility on an elected partisan mayor have brought in managers to take over some of their administrative burden. The distinction between the two systems isn’t nearly as clear-cut as it was a couple of generations ago.
The one fundamental truth that seems to emerge from a century of experimentation is that no one arrangement is ideal for every city. Almost anything can work with the right sort of community leadership. Dallas and Houston provide an interesting case. Their systems of government couldn’t be much more different. In the past several decades, Houston has had a series of strong mayors who have not only dominated the city but frequently become familiar names on the broader urban government scene. Dallas, administered largely by an appointed city manager, has had a series of mayors whose names tend to be forgotten outside the city once they leave office.
The results of these different approaches have been pretty similar. Dallas and Houston both have more than their share of urban problems, but they have largely thrived in recent years, attracting new businesses and residents and earning reputations as two of America’s better-governed cities. As the Colorado Municipal League’s Mamet likes to say, it’s not the system, it’s the people.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the decision Pueblo made this year. When corporate recruiters knock on the door of city hall, it’s best to have somebody sitting at a desk with a nameplate that says “Mayor” on it. The details can be worked out later.
A Reader Responds:
As a strong advocate of council-manager government, it is with pride that I can point out that two-thirds of Moody's Aaa-bond-rated communities operate under the council-manager form. Council-manager cities, according to the IBM report "Smarter, Faster, Cheaper," are nearly 10 percent more efficient than cities with "strong" mayor forms of government. And the majority of All-America City Award recipients for the past five years have been council-manager.
Residents of council-manager communities can expect to see a professionally qualified staff led by an appointed manager who is ethically compelled to tell the governing body what they need to know rather than what they want to hear. Residents can expect to see an appointed manager and senior staff that find themselves responsibly at the intersection of political and administrative arenas, facilitating the connection between what is "politically acceptable" in the community and what is "operationally sustainable." These two basic elements of effective governance could occur under any form of government, but I deeply believe that they are embedded within the council-manager structure. This does not mean that every council-manager government does these things well, but if they do not, it is not the fault of the structure, which is designed to promote effectiveness.
Council-manager government is fundamentally about structure-the place in which democratic values, processes and professionalism are embedded. This structure and these qualities cannot exist when communities seek purely "heroic" leadership. I do not think council-manager communities look for Superman or Wonder Woman to create community prosperity and resilience through charismatic leadership. I do, however, believe mayor-council communities create more of that expectation.
Consider all the challenges we face locally, things like affordable housing, homelessness, opioid abuse and climate change. No "heroic leader" is going to solve these issues. Rather, they require leadership and organizational structures that foster a culture of experimentation anchored in trusting relationships between the governing body and an independent administrative staff.
"Heroic" mayors capture our attention. But I would rather focus on a system that dependably provides access to democratic values; that promotes professionalism; that facilitates the connection between politics and administration; that gives exceptional leaders a chance to make a difference. I strongly believe that these are the characteristics of the council-manager structure, not the mayor-council form.
John Nalbandian, Professor Emeritus, School of Public Affairs & Administration, University of Kansas; former mayor of Lawrence, Kansas