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David Reynolds: Strong Mayors=Strong Cities

Column by David Reynolds

Last night, if you were able break away from the distant static of the presidential campaign, there was an opportunity to participate in another campaign, this one up close and civil. There was a forum held in Lexington to have the candidates for mayor and city council (all elected at large) answer questions from the audience.

You know Lexington. It is that college town in Virginia that can’t decide whether it wishes to be a magnet or a doughnut – whether it wishes to attract life to the city, or whether it will continue to have life sucked out of it and become the hole in the doughnut.

If you not aware that in just 41 days Lexington is having a local election that is understandable. There have been no mailings for contributions, no gotcha games played and not one TV ad. Nonetheless, Lexington’s future is up for grabs.

Many questions at the forum were directed toward two good candidates for mayor, Mary Harvey and Mimi Elrod. Yet no one bothered to ask the most important question. That question deals with Lexington’s “City Council-City Manager-Weak Mayor” form of government. While the voters directly elect a six-member city council and a mayor, it is only the city council which votes on issues, unless there is a tie, and then the mayor is allowed to cast a ballot. The city manager is in charge of daily operations, including financial controls and budget preparation.

Why? Because we don’t trust the people. Lexington’s form of government was dictated almost a century ago by an overreaction to corruption in a few large cities. It wasn’t the intent of public administrators that city mayors be weak; the intent was to drive politics out of the political process – a naive idea.

In recent years some cities have seen the folly of not trusting the people – San Diego, Oakland (Calif.), Spokane, Cincinnati, Miami, Hartford, and Richmond (Va.) – all have switched to a strong mayor form of government where the mayor prepares the budget and oversees city operations. More often than not this means that taxes go to the front of the issues line. Financial matters are not set aside with the feeling that professional city managers always know best.

Political science now tends to side with the strong mayor form of local government. Look at Richmond. Whether you love or hate Doug Wilder, the first elected mayor under a new city charter, Mayor Wilder is attempting to make changes. This follows a typical pattern when there is a feeling in the air that the status quo is unacceptable. Strong mayors also mean a more transparent government.

But who the strong mayor is makes a difference. Both New Orleans and Charleston, S.C., two cities hit by major hurricanes, have a strong mayor form of government. Charleston’s long-time Mayor Riley made a positive difference. And you know the story of New Orleans.

Changing a city’s charter is not a easy thing to do. It may take years. But voting is easy. It takes only minutes. Which brings us back to Nov. 4 and Lexington’s mayoral contest.

The city is struggling. A look at similar college towns tells us that higher education doesn’t solve the problem. Rather, it is a large part of the problem due to extensive tax exempt property, plus the invention of the automobile – students and staff can leave the city. This financial struggle is not aided when a city maintains its own school district which imports children to keep it afloat! For example, most of Lexington’s capital budget is for its two schools. The debt created is entirely the responsibility of the city. County transfers have none. What’s next? More city debt to replace the Nelson Street bridge for use mainly by those not paying!

As a Rockbridge County resident I appreciate the taxpayers of Lexington for planning to give me a free ride across a new bridge, and for fully paying the construction costs for a couple of schools which kids in my neighborhood attend. Thank you.

As we indicated earlier, who is doing the governing is as important as its form. A “weak mayor” need not be a ceremonial job. I have talked to people who rave about the job Chuck Phillips and the late Pat Brady did as Lexington mayors. From what I can figure out they did what fighter pilots are taught to do: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA). Like pilots, good mayors quickly get inside the minds of others and then complete their missions. (Columnist Michael Barone claims that former fighter pilot John McCain followed OODA when he selected the governor of Alaska as his running mate. He acted in such a way that his opponent’s responses would repeatedly reinforce the very points he was attempting to make and undermine their own mission.)

Can Lexington benefit from having a strong mayor using OODA? After Nov. 4 we may find out.

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