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Is it time for Austin to have a ‘strong mayor’?

Thursday, November 16, 2017 by Jack Craver

It’s a common refrain in city political debates: Austin is a big city and it’s time it started acting like one, whether that means building mass transit, allowing taller buildings or adopting single-member City Council districts.

For Roger Borgelt, a member of the Charter Review Commission, it means ditching Austin’s longtime council-manager form of government.

“We’re too large a city to continue having a council-manager form of government,” said Borgelt at a Monday evening meeting of the commission, which Council appointed to make recommended changes to the charter to be submitted for voter approval in November 2018.

Under the council-manager system, which predominates among mid-sized U.S. cities, the city manager essentially functions as the CEO of the city bureaucracy, directing the day-to-day affairs of city departments. The manager hires and fires department heads and oversees the implementation of policies put in place by Council.

Those far-reaching responsibilities explain why the hiring of the city manager is such a big (and oft-controversial) decision in Austin, which has operated under Interim City Manager Elaine Hart for more than a year, since former City Manager Marc Ott left for another job in October 2016.

The mayor-council form of government, which is more common among large cities, more closely mirrors the federal government. Like the president, the mayor appoints department leaders, who serve at the mayor’s pleasure.

Borgelt said he would prefer a system where staff is accountable to “somebody who is elected, rather than somebody who is appointed.”

Commissioner Fred Lewis, who had earlier in the meeting bemoaned instances of staff refusing to follow directions from Council, agreed with some of Borgelt’s critiques. He has reluctantly come to the conclusion, he said, that “the progressive notion that the city manager would insulate the city (staff) from politics has been proven to be so false.”

Commissioner Ingrid Weigand agreed that under the current system, “the city manager has too much power and can run circles around Council.”

As it stands, she said, the city manager has too many responsibilities.

“I think it’s asking too much of one person,” she said.

But while Weigand said that she supported reducing the manager’s powers, she liked the idea of maintaining some type of apolitical administrator to oversee the day-to-day affairs of city government.

“Somebody has to keep the lights on,” she said.

The notion of a stronger mayor, however, concerned Commissioner Matt Hersh, who said that the concept of further empowering the mayor appeared to contradict the move three years ago away from an at-large Council to a district-based Council.

“It feels like we’re making the mayor super powerful when we just voted to disperse power” throughout the city, he said.

Borgelt countered that Council wouldn’t be losing any power as a result. The mayor would simply be gaining powers from the city manager.

Many mayor-council governments operate under a strong-mayor system, where the mayor has additional legislative powers, such as the ability to veto measures passed by Council. Currently, the Austin mayor’s vote is not worth any more than his 10 Council colleagues, meaning that his support is hardly crucial to get things passed.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, however, Borgelt said that he was not necessarily proposing extending such powers to the mayor. The most likely outcome, he suggested, would be a hybrid system in which the mayor would appoint department heads and Council would have more oversight over city departments and their budgets, similar to the oversight role that Congress has over federal agencies.

However, with the ability to appoint and oversee department directors, the mayor would gain potentially significant influence over how policies approved by Council are implemented, or whether they are implemented at all.

Whatever the commission decides, its recommendations would require approval from both Council and voters to go into effect. It’s far from clear how either group would react.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo told the Austin Monitor that she not only would oppose a change to the current system, but that such matters fall outside of the scope of work that Council authorized the commission to take on when it voted to create the panel this spring.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he was open to a “conversation” about changing the system. The main concern that he has heard from others is a “real or perceived disconnect … between the decision that the elected members make and the actions of the administration.”

He noted, however, that he would not push for any major change immediately.

Council Member Leslie Pool similarly told the Monitor she was “going to continue listening” as the commission continues its discussions.

An aide to Mayor Steve Adler said he was not available for comment Tuesday or Wednesday, and wanted to review the commission transcript to better understand what was being proposed before commenting.

Photo by John Flynn.

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