by Daryl Slusher
Mayor Steve Adler today responded to the Austin Independent’s question on whether he could guarantee he would not run if a recently announced effort to switch to a strong mayor form of government succeeds. In particular the Independent asked the question because several political operatives with close ties to Adler are heavily involved in the nascent campaign.
Adler responded by email, writing, “I’m not associated with the initiative, but I support it. I will not run for re-election or undertake a petition drive.”
So, to summarize, the strong mayor effort will have the support of the current Mayor, but Adler, as stated today, will not be a candidate to be the City’s first strong mayor. We will write more on this initiative in the coming weeks and months, including talking to supporters of the effort who have reached out to us. For now, however, I will lay out some initial questions that I believe should be addressed. These questions are offered in the spirit that those seeking something as major as a change in the form of government should have a high bar to clear.
At this point I also feel the need to take a brief detour for full disclosure. Readers have likely noticed that I sometimes express strong opinions here in the Independent, although I try hard to be fair and to accurately portray differing points of view. On this issue, however, I plan to take a neutral approach of offering observations and asking questions that are essential to address before any change in the form of government occurs.
I will do this based on the principle that changing the form of government is an extremely consequential and far-reaching endeavor and that those seeking the change have an obligation to make their case in a factual and thoughtful way. Another operating principle will be that a change in government should not take place because of frustrations with individual policies, individual actions, or individuals.
Continuing on full disclosure, back in the late 1980s or early 1990s I once favored, or at least entertained supporting, a switch to strong mayor under the philosophy that the Council-Manager form of government does not provide direct enough accountability to voters. This was not part of any campaign or initiative, but I just wanted to acknowledge it.
Over the years though I saw that the Council-Manager form of government can be made to govern Austin effectively. Those years included nine during which I served as an Austin City Council Member in the Council-Manager — at-large Council — form of government. Later I served as an executive — Assistant Director at Austin Water — within the Council-Manager form of government and under the City Manager’s authority. During both those endeavors I came to see the value of a strong Council as opposed to one powerful Mayor and a weaker Council under strong mayor.
Through all those years, I believe it still remains a legitimate argument that having the City Manager as the top executive of the City does not offer a direct enough line of accountability to voters. At the same time, however, I came to see the value of having professional, and non-political, managers, department heads and staff who offer professional opinions to policy makers i.e. the Mayor and Council; as the Council deliberates policy for the City.
In evaluating the current strong mayor proposal I will try to bring my experience to bear in an even handed way with my bias being that those advocating a change in the form of government should have an obligation to citizens to be thorough, transparent, and to address all questions which arise.
A Short History of the Council-Manager Form of Government
It is an historical irony that the pro-strong mayor group is named Austinites for Progressive Reform (APR) and that they style their proposals as progressive reforms. Perhaps that is the case. The historical irony, however, is that the Council-Manager form of government, beginning in the late 19th and early 20th Century, was seen as a progressive reform of corrupt strong mayor city governments at at the time — and an attempt to reform big city political machines. A fundamental rationale for the Council Manager reform was that it took patronage away from the Mayors i.e. being able to hire and fire all City employees. These reforms came as part of what is known as the Progressive Era in American history — roughly from the late 1890s to World War I.
Strong mayor advocates today will likely point out that the Progressive Era was almost totally dominated by whites with white oriented reforms. That is true, but the issue of patronage remains; thus our first set of questions.
How would a strong mayor system in Austin protect against a Mayor using the prospect of City jobs in exchange for support?
How would a Mayor be prevented from requiring City employees to support him or her in reelection efforts?
What protections would current City employees, especially the rank and file, have?
Would a switch to strong mayor remove any protections that rank and file employees currently have?
Role of the Council
With that said, let’s look at some other initial questions that arise when considering a switch to strong mayor.
First, what would be the role of the City Council in an Austin strong mayor form of government. It is an obvious question to ask, but much harder to answer. Envisioning a strong mayor form of government that does not diminish the powers that Council has now is very difficult, if not imposible. So it would seem logical that Council Members would object. That may not necessarily be the case, however. Individual Council Members might believe that there would be more direct accountability with a strong mayor system. Plus, individual Council Members, especially those near their term limits, might envision themselves as Austin’s first strong mayor.
Of course Council Members will not be the only ones asking or answering this question. It will be interesting, however, to see how current Council Members respond.
Would Strong Mayor Diminish 10-1?
This question of course relates directly to the previous one, but there is more to it than that. The website of Austinites for Progressive Reform (APR), the pro-strong mayor group, lists a number of progressive goals the group hopes to achieve through their reforms, then states: “We will only be able to adequately address these issues when all of our voices — not just those of the well-off and well-connected — are heard at the ballot box and at City Hall.” This one sounds an awful lot like the rhetoric promoting the switch to single member districts i.e. 10-1 in 2014 — and like the ongoing rhetoric of several 10-1 Council Members since then.
For instance here’s part of a 2018 statement promoting CodeNext from Mayor Pro Tem/County Attorney Elect Delia Garza and Council Members Greg Casar, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, and Jimmy Flanagan: “In years past, the more politically organized and affluent segments of Austin were better positioned to protect their own interests. . . Short-term interests were given priority over the long-term sustainability of our city. The cascading negative effects of years under this status quo have impacted all of us.”
But, then, they continue, came 10-1: “with one mayor elected citywide and 10 council members elected from each of the city’s newly drawn geographic districts. This provided an opportunity for new voices to be heard and for underrepresented communities to finally have a seat at the table.”
By exponentially increasing the powers of the only member of the Council elected at-large, it seems to logically follow that this decreases the power of the District elected Council Members and increases the power of the at-large vote. So this will be a big one for APR as well as Council Members to address.
Will It Be Difficult for a Person of Color to be Elected Mayor?
A fundamental article of faith among 10-1 proponents has always been that the at large system made it difficult, if not impossible, for people of color to win citywide except in Place 5 and Place 6 — the seats set aside for a Mexican American and African American respectively under the informal Gentleman’s Agreement. Said more bluntly, many 10-1 backers flat out claimed that the gentleman’s agreement and the at-large system by extension was racist.
Personally, I felt that Austin would elect people of color outside those designated positions, and that part of the problem was a dearth of people willing to run. Austin voters for example overwhelmingly elected Gus Garcia when he ran for Mayor in 2001. Austin also elected Jennifer Kim, an Asian American to the Council in 2005. The fact remains though that Garcia and Kim were the only two people to break the barrier. And, it is also a fact that minority representation on the Council has increased under 10-1.
Given all that, it seems that a move to strong mayor would be a move back toward more power for at large voting, and thus something that 10-1 proponents would question. All members of the current 10-1 Council will likely have to vote on whether to put strong mayor on the ballot. The second method of getting the measure on the ballot is a petition drive. With Mayor Adler voicing his support for the initiative we know there is at least one vote on the Council.
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