Peter Callaghan: When choosing a form for local government, size doesn’t matter

Staff WriterMarch 25, 2014 

It is a truism that might not be driving the discussions by Tacoma’s charter review committee, but it’s at least sitting in the car.

It goes something like this: Big cities have strong mayors, and only small cities use the council-manager form of government. Tacoma, therefore, always obsessed with what others think of it, should join the big leagues, jettison its city manager and switch to a mayor-council system.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a strong mayor system. Some of my favorite cities elect their mayor and give him or her the keys to the government. Policy is set by the city council.

But many American cities of size still use the council-manager form of government in which the council hires and fires the city manager. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s equivalent in Tacoma isn’t Mayor Marilyn Strickland, it’s City Manager T.C. Broadnax.

Tacoma is the most-populous city in Washington with council-manager governance. But there are others close behind in size — Vancouver, Bellevue, Spokane Valley, Yakima and Kennewick.

There are more mayor-council cities (227) than council-manager cities (53). Despite the large difference in overall numbers, 42 percent of those who live in cities in Washington live in council-manager cities.

And according to the state Municipal Research and Services Center, the numbers haven’t changed much, with only eight cities switching to mayor-council since 1972 but 18 cities going the other way.

Of the 279 U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more that have chosen between these two forms of government, 104 are mayor-council and 175 are council-manager, according to statistics compiled by the International City/County Management Association. Even three of the nine cities with populations of 1 million or more – San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas — have council-manager forms.

The last time Tacoma toyed with the idea of making the switch I sought out one of the few people with direct experience under both systems. Cary Bozeman had been the mayor of Bellevue, a council-manager city. He later moved to Bremerton, where he was elected that city’s strong mayor.

“Strong mayor works better when you can find an elected official who has the ability to lead,” Bozeman wrote in 2005. “More can get done, change can happen.”

“Given that those kind of people are difficult to find, I would generally say a council-manager system under a nonpartisan city council has the chance to hire someone with professional experience,” Bozeman said.

He ended with an important warning: City managers shouldn’t stay in the same job for too long because they can become too powerful without having to answer to the public. Sound familiar?

If done right, the council in a council-manager form of government chooses well and then lets the manager do the job while it worries about budget and policy. And that manager acts professionally, not staying too long and staying completely out of local politics. Council-manager, after all, emerged from a reform movement aimed at cleaning up American cities that had become corrupt under machine politics and strong mayors who were a bit too strong.

In 1952, when Tacoma voters narrowly adopted the new form, they were reacting to corruption and incompetence. Prostitution was so rampant that the American Social Hygiene Association gave the city a failing grade. Yes, Tacoma had bad hygiene, which could explain why the Army was threatening to make it off-limits.

I think the council-manager form can be more nimble and more able to react to opportunities. It is seemingly less political – perhaps to a fault in Tacoma in the way it makes a vice out of honest disagreement and open debate.

But it doesn’t perform as well in a crisis or when residents are upset about a problem or scandal. That’s when a strong mayor – conditioned to seek consensus and sensitive to public opinion – performs better.

Tacoma voters might be asked again to choose, perhaps this fall, and the city won’t collapse whatever the decision. But the choice should be based on what works better, not some belief that “real” cities have strong mayors.

peter.callaghan@ @CallaghanPeter

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