Viewpoint: Austin voters should deny push for a 'strong' mayor

'Austinites would elect a mayor with almost endless power' Opinion Article form Austin BizJournals

A very important election is coming up this spring. A small group of people identifying themselves as “progressive” is proposing four changes to our city charter. Three of the four amendments are clearly designed to distract voters from the main issue — the effort to end Austin’s time-tested council-manager form of local government. Many of the arguments for switching to strong mayor make some sense on first reading, but Austinites should beware: This is a Trojan Horse and would bring numerous unintended and destructive consequences to our city if it passes. I’ll leave it to others to illuminate the problems with three of the four charter amendments on the May ballot. The strong-mayor amendment is the one of critical importance to those of us who prize the extraordinary success Austin has had with our current council-manager form of government. Under this proposal, Austinites would elect a mayor with almost endless power. The mayor would no longer sit on the City Council and would have complete budgetary and veto power over everything the Council does. It is conceivable that, if this amendment passes, the first person elected as Austin’s strong mayor could hold the office for a decade — two years to bring the election into the same cycle as elections for U.S. President (called for in one of the other proposed amendments), then two back-to-back four-year terms. Converting to a strong mayor government would be a major step backward for Austin. Consider: • In recent years, Austinites reimagined our city government by adopting a system (10-1) that assures wider geographical representation on the City Council. That system has resulted in City Council members who come from areas of the city not previously represented. Relegating our City Council to the secondary role councils play under strong mayor structures is not progress. • The proposed strong mayor amendment would give us a mayor, operating independently of the Council, with wide spending authority for initiatives chosen by him or her, veto authority over Council decisions and the power to make critical decisions without regard to city priorities. • A mayor who is no longer a member of the City Council and thus does not have to participate in Council meetings is removed from the public. The strong mayor will become harder and harder for the public to access, while the Council will essentially be devolved into “ward politicians,” dealing with little of real importance to the entire city and having a devalued vote that can be easily overridden by the mayor. • IBM Corp. published a report a few years ago entitled “Smarter, Faster, Cheaper — An Operations Efficiency Benchmarking Study of 100 American Cities.” The report concluded: “Cities with city manager forms of government are nearly 10% more efficient than cities with strong mayor forms of city government.”

• All cities issue long-term bonds to finance major public improvements. The higher the city’s credit rating — ranging from AAA at the top to BBB at the bottom — the better the interest rate, saving taxpayers millions of dollars. On average, the AAA rating is typical of council-manager cities such as Austin, San Antonio and Phoenix, while large strong mayor cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles have ratings that are well below the top. In the final analysis, what is really needed in today’s urban communities are strong mayors, strong councils and strong city managers. Austin can stay at the top of the list of the most exciting and best-run cities in the country if we defeat the strong-mayor amendment in May. Terrell Blodgett is the Mike Hogg professor emeritus in urban management within the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the the University of Texas at Austin.

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