Saturday’s Virginian Pilot had an article floating the idea of a strong mayor form of government for the city. Currently, Norfolk utilizes the city manager form of government. According to Wikipedia, this type of government “is used in the majority of American cities with populations over 12,000.”
In the council-manager form of government, an elected city council (typically between five and 11 people) is responsible for making policy, passing ordinances, voting appropriations, and having overall supervisory authority in the city government. In such a government, the mayor (or equivalent executive) will perform strictly ceremonial duties or will act as a member and presiding officer of the council, similar to a chairman. The council will appoint a city manager or administrator who will be responsible for supervising government operations and implementing the policies adopted by the council. The manager serves the council, usually with a contract that specifies duties and responsibilities.
By contrast, Wikipedia offers this definition of a strong mayor form of government:
The strong-mayor form of mayor-council government consists of a popularly elected executive branch and a legislative branch, usually a city mayor and city council respectively. In the strong-mayor form the mayor is given almost total administrative authority and a clear, wide range of political independence, with the power to appoint and dismiss department heads without council approval and little public input. In this system, the strong mayor prepares and administers the city budget, although that budget often must be approved by the city council. In some strong-mayor governments, the mayor will appoint a chief administrative officer, or CAO, who will supervise department heads, prepare the budget, and coordinate departments. This CAO, sometimes also called a city managing director, is responsible only to the mayor. The government of New York City uses the strong-mayor form of the mayor-council system, as, indeed, do most major American cities.
While Norfolk has had an elected mayor for less than two years, the truth is that this conversation about adding powers to the mayor’s office has come up before. Back in 1997, when council was first considering an elected mayor, the idea of a strong mayor form of government was discussed. More recently, the issue was floated again – on the day Paul Fraim was sworn in. What has changed in the interim? Not much – except that the chorus of people who would like to see the current city manager removed has grown louder. (I also find it quite amusing that some of those who would like to see a strong mayor fought tooth and nail against having an elected mayor at all.)
In my 30+ years in Norfolk, it seems that Norfolk has always had a relationship with the city manager that waivers between love and hate. Perhaps that is the nature of the beast that is the city-manager form of government. Nevertheless, a move away from a professional manager to a politician seems a bit like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Add to it the possibility of a CAO – an unelected official responsible only to the mayor – and it quickly can become a disaster.
I remain supportive of an elected mayor in Norfolk, since the people of Norfolk voted overwhelmingly to have one. But if Richmond is any example, Norfolk doesn’t need to make this move. And as I wrote almost two years ago, getting the General Assembly to approve such a move in light what Richmond has experienced seems unlikely.
But don’t expect this issue to go away. After all, at the end of the day it is about power. And we know what power does.