Last February, in Oakland, California, every city department head received a startlingly blunt letter from the city manager. "This is to notify you," it read, "that the city is contemplating possibly separating you from service in the near future.... Let me be brutally clear, the status not acceptable."

In the end, it turned out to be something less than an earthquake. But it was still a rude shock. Three department heads, including the popular police chief, were asked to quit. A fourth was reassigned, and 60 managers were told they were being given a final chance to shape up.

The local newspapers called it a purge; some columnists even used the word "pogrom." Delegations of citizens descended on City Hall to protest. A leading minister complained that Oakland government was in danger of being set back 30 years, to the time when local officials and militant Black Panthers turned the city into a political war zone.

But through all the uproar, the city manager, Robert Bobb, just went serenely about his business. Under Oakland's new form of government, he didn't have to take the heat for his decisions. The mayor did. And the mayor, Jerry Brown, not only agreed with Bobb, he didn't really care what anyone else thought.

A little over a year ago, Oakland citizens voted to rewrite their charter, abandoning the old council-manager system for a six-year experiment with strong-mayor government. When that decision was made, critics warned that the city was being set up for stalemate: a highly politicized mayor's office blocking the manager's good-government reforms. Nobody predicted what has actually ensued: the mayor and manager fusing their powers into a formidable alliance for dramatic change.

If Bobb had written his purge memo under the old system, he says, "you'd have ended up with nine individuals [on the city council] giving you nine different reasons as to why you didn't have to make those decisions. And someone would have said--and there isn't a city manager out there who would not admit this--someone would have said, `If you fire this person we're going to put together our votes to terminate you.' Here, I made these very uncomfortable personnel changes, but I only had to deal with one person--the mayor. It didn't matter how loud the chorus was from other sectors."

In the year since Jerry Brown took over as Oakland's mayor, much has changed in city government. The once-powerful council has lost much of its access to the mayor, who is no longer a council member and need not (in Brown's case, does not) attend the meetings. Citizen activists are in much the same position: If they want to buttonhole the mayor, they must find some other place besides council meetings to do it.

But what may be most important is the change that has not occurred. Brown has made no attempt to turn Oakland city government into an extension of his campaign. And Bobb has lost none of his authority over its day-to-day workings. Taken together, these two non- developments have helped make Oakland the country's most engaging experiment in dislodging a stuck city government by reshuffling executive and political power.

It is an experiment with implications well beyond Oakland. In growing numbers, manager-run cities all over the country have been trying to find ways of providing more political authority to their "weak" mayors. In Cincinnati, voters last year decided to strengthen their mayor by boosting his or her power over the city council; the changes take effect with the 2001 election. In Spokane, Washington, voters opted in November by a hairsbreadth to jettison the city manager system entirely and shift to a strong mayor. In San Diego, an informal group of business leaders appears ready to place a question on the ballot calling for the same change. Other manager-run cities, including San Jose and Charlotte, have not gone as far, but have also moved to give more power to the mayor.

"The council-manager system is changing," says Bill Hansell, executive director of the International City/County Management Association. Hansell is hardly out stumping for a switch to strong- mayor charters--he is a longtime defender of the manager system--but as he points out, the system is being questioned by the very people who for decades were among its most ardent defenders: chambers of commerce and other elements of the business community. "Businessmen recognize that there are downsides when you put so much power in the hands of the mayor that the entire government is in the hands of one person," he says. "But they were also finding that councils in council-manager cities were fractious, argumentative and unable to be civil, because no one had any ability to lead. So what they're trying is what I would call an empowered chairman of the board, but with a separate CEO."

Every city is different, of course; what works in one might be impossible elsewhere. But the combination seems to be working in Oakland, and any city considering a more powerful "chairman of the board" should probably spend some time trying to understand why.

When he first began running for mayor in 1998, the 60-year-old Jerry Brown sounded almost like a caricature of his caricature, the young "Governor Moonbeam" who ran California in the 1970s. He wanted to make Oakland an "Ecopolis," with solar generators, an abundance of urban gardens and a humming trade in small-scale crafts. "The citizens of Oakland Ecopolis," one early campaign document read, "are capable of steering an alternate path promising fiscal responsibility, sustainable economic practices and a shared abundance in the treasures of their commonwealth of ethnically and racially diverse subcommunities."

Not too far into the campaign, though, Brown started hearing what people were telling him, and it had nothing to do with sustainable development or treasuring their commonwealth. They wanted him to attack crime, improve the abysmally poor schools, help out their dilapidated neighborhoods and do something about a city government that seemed downright hapless when it came to economic development. So Brown switched course and began championing an entirely different cause, a narrower one calling for more efficient government, a more hard-nosed approach to crime, a complete overhaul of the schools and a hard-charging push to lure development to downtown Oakland. These were the changes on the community's agenda, and Brown vowed to be the agent.

Along the way, however, Brown decided that there was another problem. He couldn't actually become the agent of change under the old council- manager form of government. "The council form, in smaller towns of great homogeneity and stability, works more or less all right," Brown says. "But when you have deadlock, when you have drift, when you have serious urban problems, when you have a divided constituency, there has to be a way to mobilize leadership, and that leadership can't just be rhetorical. There has to be the linking of management and the public role of the highest elected official, the mayor. When you divide those, you weaken the ability to move a city forward. It's almost like consumer fraud: You have an election, and the word `mayor' implies leader, but if all there is is the presiding officer of the city council, with no more power than anyone else other than that you sit in the middle and hold the gavel, that's a situation where the reality diverges from the public impression." And so, once he'd won the Democratic primary and it was clear that he would be Oakland's next mayor, he announced that he wanted to change the charter to give himself more power, although without doing away with the city manager.

This might have been the moment for Robert Bobb to bow out. At age 53, a year into his tenure as Oakland's manager, Bobb was at the pinnacle of his profession. He was a well-respected professional manager who, in his previous jobs--in Richmond, Virginia; Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Santa Ana, California--had developed a national reputation as a highly skillful and enterprising manager, but also as one who insisted on exercising firm control over his city. It was a trait that had helped him wear out his welcome in Richmond, where the police department in particular chafed under his demand that he help shape its policies. And it was a trait that could easily have set him at odds with the even more imperious, and no less self-confident, Mayor Brown. Instead, each turned out to buttress the other's strengths.

You can find plenty of cynics who are happy to point out that both men had good reasons for trying to work things out: Brown, as the white mayor of a heavily African-American city, was helped enormously by retaining a black manager; Bobb is making a $180,000 salary with generous benefits, a level of compensation that he'd be hard-pressed to match elsewhere. But it seems clear that, at least early on, the greatest doubts that a modus vivendi should be reached were harbored by Brown and Bobb themselves. "The potential conflict is enormous when you've got a pure political visionary demanding results, and a manager who is practical and ethical about processes," says George Musgrove, who came with Bobb from Richmond as assistant city manager, and is now interim superintendent of the Oakland public schools. "Both people had to be convinced that both points of view were valid, and it took a lot of debate, dialogue and relationship-building for that to develop."

For his part, Brown knew what he wanted done, and that there was a limit to what he could do alone. He laid out four goals: reorganize the police department with the aim of reducing crime by 20 percent; improve the city's school system, both by changing the bureaucracy and by introducing charter schools; bring 10,000 new residents to downtown, using their presence to generate more business on its streets; and "foster artistic expression, craft and civic festivals."

But the new mayor also knew that a strong political will and coverage from the likes of "60 Minutes" and Rolling Stone could only carry him so far. To change the way Oakland worked, he needed someone who cared intensely about the details, and was not invested in the ways Oakland had worked until then. In other words, he needed Robert Bobb.

Take economic development. For many years, Oakland has thought of itself as the workaday stepsister to San Francisco, across the bay, and so has fallen for a series of get-glamorous-quick schemes, none of which seemed to deliver what it had promised. There were freeways that, as urban freeways everywhere have done, sucked vitality off the city's streets. There were government buildings that were supposed to revitalize downtown and didn't, and transit stations that were supposed to serve as nodes for retail development, but that in 30 years of existence had not done so. And above all, there was the debacle of the city's drive to romance the Raiders football team back from Los Angeles, in which Oakland put itself on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars for a new stadium without adequate safeguards should its anticipated funding sources fail to live up to expectations, which is what happened. "We did redevelopment, we didn't do economic development," says Bobb. "We spent a lot of time working on sports franchises and government complexes, but not building the economy."

Then there are the city's schools, whose elected leadership and management have at times seemed more interested in making political statements than in improving the quality of education. There was the school board's notorious 1996 decision to teach Ebonics, or black English, as a substitute for the standard version, and more recently, the teachers' union vote to hold a day-long teach-in on Mumia Abu- Jamal, the former radio journalist convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman. Meanwhile, 85 percent of the school system's 10th-graders read below national proficiency norms.

The case of the police is a little more complex. Joe Samuels, the city's longtime police chief, earned a national reputation for developing a sophisticated community policing structure, with local crime prevention councils and neighborhood services officers. As Oakland's first black chief, he was popular, and more important, instilled a sense that the police were there to serve, not to occupy. "There was a time in Oakland," says one longtime civic observer, "when the fire department would go to put out a fire in West Oakland and people would throw rocks, and police cars would be shot at. Joe Samuels changed that." What he did not do, however, was drive crime rates down--or at least, not as fast as was occurring elsewhere.

And so, despite periods of strong and well-regarded leadership, what developed over the past few decades in Oakland was a civic culture of defeat, a sense that revitalization was a lost cause because the cards were stacked against the city--not just the obvious ones, dealt by bankers who refused to finance development, or insurers who redlined, but even by nature itself, with the 1989 earthquake and the 1993 Oakland Hills fire. The city's previous leadership had been unable to reverse the sense that failure was inevitable.

Indeed, says city council member John Russo, "to some extent they lowered expectations. When you asked, `Why can't Oakland do X?', the answer was, `We're set upon by the quake or the fire or the whole parade of horribles,' all of which was true, but didn't explain why the street sweeper didn't come by on the day he was supposed to."

Before Brown's arrival, Bobb had set out to change all this. He laid off a core of entrenched assistant city managers who had repeatedly fought with the city council; he publicly took on slumlords and neglectful homeowners; and he began trying to instill a more customer- friendly attitude in the city's work force. But progress was slow, and political resistance high. Small wonder that when Jerry Brown appeared on the scene and promised change, people leapt at the hope he offered.

Perhaps the most significant thing Brown did was to make it clear that, while he might be calling the shots, he had no intention of usurping Bobb's day-to-day authority. If he had acted differently, and involved himself in the details of city government, the experiment probably would not have worked. But the new mayor refrained from surrounding himself with the usual cadre of political advisers-- although he did keep his longtime counselor, Jacques Barzaghi, by his side--and kept the lines of communication open between himself and Bobb. His chief of staff, Gilda Gonzalez, is Bobb's chief of staff, and Bobb's policy staff advises Brown. No end-runs are allowed. Developers who try to deal directly with the mayor are sent to the manager's office, and when deals are negotiated, both men are involved. "There is," as Bobb says, "one center of power."

The first and most striking example of this was Samuels' resignation. Bobb had taken Brown on a tour of New York City's police department; they had seen its Comstat process, by which commanding officers are held responsible for crimes on their particular turf, and they had seen New York's emphasis on the basics of police work, and it didn't match what was going on in Oakland. "You can become so involved with the community, so involved with national affairs, that you lose touch with the nuts and bolts of your operations," says Bobb. "When you don't pay attention to those as our number-one priority, then you don't belong in a Bobb administration. Period."

While the mayor and the manager disagreed on how to replace Samuels-- Bobb wanted to look outside Oakland, Brown wanted to hire from within- -they settled the argument quickly, and replaced Samuels with Richard Word, a popular young department veteran who, when asked if he could achieve a 20 percent reduction in crime, said yes. Word has begun a version of the Comstat process in Oakland, aimed both at putting some heat on district commanders and giving the department its first sustained look at crime patterns. "We've never had a goal to reduce crime," Word says. "Not in my career. We've never said, `This is the bottom line, let's go after it.'" Now it is being said.

Brown and Bobb are already using the changes Word has made to convince potential investors in the city that they're working to reduce crime. Because of the region's booming economy and the expensive housing and office market in San Francisco, Oakland has for some time been in a position to pick up both residents and businesses; fear of crime stood in the way.

Now, there is a new sense of possibilities. When the city recently assembled four parcels of land and put them out to bid, it attracted offers from 23 developers--and as Bobb points out, "for the first time in Oakland's recent history, these were all market-rate deals, not city-subsidized deals." Developers are competing for a major downtown housing and retail project as well, and businesses in San Francisco and Berkeley, drawn by lower rents, are inquiring about possible sites.

With the political backing of Brown, Bobb has put an end to the city's practice of throwing infrastructure money to whichever organized interest groups demanded it loudly enough. The city now has a set of developable sites it has identified, and strategies for attracting developers to them. The office that handles building permits will soon be available to developers 24 hours a day, and is looking at ways of making it easier for homeowners to get permits for renovations. Teams of city staff are trying to make the bureaucracy more customer-friendly and cutting rules that have reduced efficiency.

There are, to be sure, limits to how far Bobb can go. Staff morale is low, which is hardly a surprise: Bobb is essentially trying to change city government culture, and as he admits, "that's a humdinger." More specifically, he is barred from using some of his favored motivational tools, such as fostering competition between city agencies and private contractors. Oakland's city charter makes contracting out illegal.

The biggest test ahead is the schools. Last spring, Brown and Bobb persuaded the school district's longtime superintendent, Carole Quan, to step down, and replaced her with George Musgrove. Musgrove is basically an extension of Bobb--he calls Bobb his "mentor and best friend"--but with a sharper edge.

Musgrove is officially an interim superintendent, but has not been acting like one. "How can you do that?" he asks. "Say, `I'm here not to rock the boat,' when I was sent here to rock the boat?" Although he admits that he was surprised by the competence and commitment of the district's top-level administrators, he also thinks the school bureaucracy is a mess. "People are focused on patronage, friendships and confusing agendas," he says, "and not accountability and outcomes."

Last fall, a task force put together by Brown and headed by Ed Blakeley, who ran for mayor against him and is now a public policy dean at the New School in New York City, recommended disbanding the current school board and changing the city charter to allow the mayor to appoint its replacement. Getting more direct control of the schools, as mayors have done in Chicago, Cleveland and elsewhere, is obviously something Brown would like to do, but so far he has not pushed for it. Last year, he opted to go half-hog, asking voters for the power to appoint some members of the board, while leaving the rest elected. At the same time, he announced, he would run his own slate of candidates this year for the elected seats.

What made the decision notable was that it was a departure from the way Brown--and to some extent Bobb--had handled things until then. In dismissing Samuels and Quan, Brown showed a sublime disregard for the protests of what he calls "the custodians of the status quo." But in deciding not to take on a fight over appointing the entire school board, Brown signaled for the first time that he realized his take-no- prisoners approach was allowing others to make his behavior an issue. "The people of Oakland are getting exactly what they asked for: respect, national recognition and an ability to get the city off the dime and in a new direction," says Ces Butner, a prominent black businessman and former mayoral candidate. "But there is also a bubbling disdain for what's seen as the power-grabbing of Jerry Brown, who does not do the traditional `I hear you and feel your pain,' which is very effective with the minority community." It is a subtle but important point: In order for Brown to achieve his goals, he has to give people such as Bobb and Musgrove the political room to do their jobs, and that will be hard to do if the community remains focused on the mayor's attitude rather than on his program.

Yet the hard fact is, for the moment, at least, Brown and Bobb can ignore most of their critics. It's not just that "the voting population is bigger than the yelling population," as Butner puts it, it's that the voting population has moved beyond the issues and the leaders who swayed it for the past few decades. "Ten years ago, there was no question that politicians needed the blessing of the ministers out of the civil-rights community," says one African-American long active in Oakland affairs. "But the community's more integrated, more upwardly mobile; they see issues differently and don't look to the old leadership structures in the black community for their point of view anymore. We had unanimity on not being able to vote, or on being shut out of City Hall. But on something like the school board, the community will be divided."

Moreover, Oakland is changing demographically. With the growth of its Hispanic and Asian populations, and the likelihood that its middle- class white population will grow as well, there is no single locus of political strength in the community anymore, at least, not a racial or ethnic one. Rather, the locus of political strength in Oakland these days is on the third floor of City Hall. And as long as Brown provides the political will, and Bobb can focus on the details, it's likely to remain there.