by Daryl Slusher
A new local political group featuring a fairly formidable sounding array of local activists, high tech multi-millionaires, and other business people emerged earlier this week with a proposal to change Austin’s form of municipal government from Council-Manager to Strong Mayor.
The group, called Austinites for Progressive Reform, also features several prominent political operatives with close ties to Mayor Steve Adler — including a former campaign manager and mayoral staffer, a deputy campaign manager, a political consultant and his campaign treasurer. The American-Statesman broke the story and reported on the Adler connections, but added: “Though the campaign is aimed at increasing the power held by the mayor, Adler would never directly benefit from it before he leaves office. His second and final term ends in 2023, and his replacement would be the city’s first ‘strong-mayor.”’
That is not exactly the case. Both the Mayor and Council Members can seek a third term if they get petition signatures from five percent of registered voters. For Council Members that is five percent of the voters in their District. For the Mayor it is five percent of voters in the City.
So with a petition drive, Steve Adler could indeed become eligible to run for a third term and run to be Austin’s first strong mayor, if the current initiative were to succeed. The Independent contacted the Mayor on Tuesday and asked if he could “guarantee” Austin voters that he will not be a candidate if the group led by several of his former campaign operatives succeeds in persuading voters to switch to a strong mayor form of government. That question was based on the possibility that charter rules could potentially change as part of the the strong mayor initiative and render him eligible to run.
After confirming that the petition clause is still in the City Charter, the Independent followed up today with an add-on question more specific to the petition drive. We have not heard back on either question.
The Austin Independent will be providing more coverage of the strong mayor proposal going forward. For tonight, however, we will end with a short summary of the two forms of government in question.
In Austin’s current form of government, Council-Manager, the Mayor is just one of 11 votes on the Council. The Mayor possesses very few powers beyond what the Council has and has no individual executive, administrative or personnel authority over anyone except the employees in his or her own office. The Mayor has no policy implementation power or authority except perhaps a little additional sway with the City Manager as the Mayor — something that varies from Mayor to Mayor and Manager to Manager.
On hiring, the Mayor collectively with the Council hires, fires and evaluates the City Manager, the City Clerk, and the City Auditor. The Mayor and Council together also appoint Municipal Judges. It is the City Manager who hires all the department heads along with his own team at the City Manager’s Office, referred to in Austin as CMO. All City employees (other than those specifically mentioned that report to Council) report to the City Manager up through the chain of command.
In a strong mayor system, the Mayor is virtually the City Manager and Mayor all rolled into one. Under most strong mayor systems the Mayor hires and fires department heads and employees report up the chain of command to him. Sometimes the Mayor will hire someone to serve as a top managerial official, akin to a City Manager, but this person is hired by and reports to the Mayor. Also, this person usually leaves when the Mayor’s office changes hands.
The Mayor is also often charged with developing and proposing a budget, usually for Council approval. And, strong mayors can even have the power to veto Council actions.
The power and relevance of the Council is at best reduced. Council becomes something like the legislative branch, although not necessarily with the municipal equivalent of the power that the U.S. Congress has — although there would be only one body, not two like in Congress.
Please stay tuned as the Austin Independent explores questions regarding the proposed change in government, based on the principle that proposals to change a form of government should have a high bar to clear.
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