Former Colorado Springs Councilman Randy Purvis was asked to write a review of Colorado College professor Bob Loevy’s evaluation of the city’s strong mayor form of government.
I don’t know who asked Purvis to write a review.
All I know is that he did it and that I got a copy.
Here it is:
Review of Loevy Analysis
Review of Council – Mayor Form of Government
Randall Purvis, 03.25.2012
Disclaimer: My comments are intended as an objective review of the system currently in place. It is not a justification of the old way of doing things. Furthermore, I intend no disrespect or insult of any one currently in office.
I. Professor Loevy’s baseline assumption is wrong; the citizens of Colorado Springs adopted a “Council – Mayor” form of government, not a “Strong Mayor” form of government. The Charter amendment language was a “find / replace” operation substituting the word “Mayor” for “City Manager.” The advertising campaign featured elementary children talking about checks and balances: “It’s the American way.” The ballot language itself told voters they were voting on a “Council-Mayor” form of government.
II. Nonetheless, the mayor position is markedly stronger one than council’s.
The mayor only has to agree with him/her self. Council must form a team of 6 or more members and act as a cohesive unit to get things done. This, in practice, is very difficult to do. The mayor has total control over city staff (civil service currently only affects only police and fire rank and file). The mayor can establish a direction and the information disseminated can be tailored to support that direction. Anyone who does not sign-on to the direction is fired. Any city employee speaking / leaking information to anyone outside the city administration, to Council or the general public is fired. Any information that does not support the direction or might be critical of it can be suppressed under the “work product” exception to CORA. While City Council has means of obtaining any information from the administration, to date they have not availed themselves of those methods. Furthermore, City Council has no authority to direct administrative staff to do anything. They cannot investigate or review alternatives, propose budgets, etc. because City Council has no staff support outside of the City Auditor’s office. It is the mayor’s ability to control information that demands a system of checks and balances; it demands a city council doing its job, not just rubber stamping everything that comes out of the administration.
III. A system of checks and balances is indeed the American way. There is a healthy and well founded distrust in government, in the persons running government and in any one person having unchecked authority. Accordingly, at the federal and state level, there institutions in place that limit the competing branches of government. At the local level, there is a corresponding need for those same limiting institutions. In establishing the folkways and customs of a mayor – council form of government in Colorado Springs, care must be taken to give the executive branch the latitude it needs to function efficiently, while still giving the 2 legislative branch the resources and authority to provide the citizen’s oversight of the executive branch. Each branch must be accountable to the other, and ultimately to the citizens that elected them. For Council to do its job, it must have the information, resources and advice to be able to do the job. Without the necessary information, council might as well stay in Plato’s Cave. Or to use a more recent analogy, take the blue pill and stay plugged into the matrix.
IV. Given this briefly statement of principles, here is my review of Loevy’s Proposed Changes
A. Council approval of Mayor Appointees.
1. The proposal would remove one of council’s most basic checks of the mayor. Council approval is a basic guard against “crony appointments.” High profile positions such as city attorney and municipal judges should require a set of hearings before council prior to council’s advice and consent to the appointment. The position of City Clerk is especially sensitive. The Clerk’s office controls and runs city elections. Giving the mayor unchecked authority to appoint the city clerk begs for charges, unfounded or not, that the mayor’s office is rigging council district boundaries and elections. An alternative solution might be a two track process: appointments for lower level positions or for positions where a super majority of
council is familiar with or comfortable with the appointee is placed on the consent calendar. More sensitive appointments or those lacking broad council support would get a more thorough council review process.
2. Mayoral Control of the Hospital / Utilities. The Charter change was for a Council – Mayor form of government. The mayor was elected as the chief executive officer of the city government, not of the hospital or of the utility department. As a practical matter, the hospital will likely be leased in the next year. Council is also reviewing alternative governance
models for utilities for future action. As a baseline principal, I feel strongly that the Colorado Springs Utilities board, like many other publicly owned and all investor owned utilities must be directly accountable to the citizen-owners of the utility. This is impossible with an appointed board.
B. City Council Districting
The need for city-wide views on Council is not diminished in a mayor-council government. It is enhanced by it. Council members elected to small districts can become parochial and narrowly focused on their own back yard. As such, they function poorly as a check and balance for the mayor’s office. Furthermore, as the Colorado Springs system is currently evolving, district representatives will also have little authority or ability to effect any change in their district, all of that control having devolved to the mayor’s office.
C. Run-off Elections for Slotted At-Large Seats.
While this may have the effect of the at-large member having a clear claim to majority support, it will also have the effect of decreasing the number of candidates and reducing the competition for those seats. Under the current system, one need only finish third to get a seat on council. Under the proposed change, a challenger must take out an incumbent with all the advantages of being in office. Historically, in Colorado Springs district races an incumbent running for re-election does so unopposed.
The current Council-Mayor system can be made to work and to work well. However, Council is at a huge disadvantage, part structural, part because council has not yet learned to function as a team. Rather than embark on charter changes that strengthen one party’s hand at the expense of the other’s, the current system should be allowed to continue to work out the folkways and customs for a few more years. Furthermore, ambiguities can always be addressed via ordinances.