Passage of Prop B Shows Need for Strong Mayor System

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City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Mayor Ron Nirenberg confer during a budget meeting in 2017.

On Tuesday, San Antonio voters passed Proposition B, limiting future city managers' compensation and tenure. While some will be tempted to view this result as a judgment on our current city manager, it may instead be a judgment on the council-manager system.

Now the question is whether our city’s leadership, having staked so much political capital on defeating Prop B, will receive the message the people have sent and push for the deeper reforms this moment requires.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley has always proved capable. Indeed, as the Go Vote No campaign was keen to point out, San Antonio has excelled under her leadership, at least by measures commonly used to evaluate a city’s success: economic growth has remained high, unemployment has remained low, and the government’s bond rating has remained excellent.

Sculley’s performance wasn't questioned during the Prop B debate; rather, the degree of power vested in her position by the city charter came under scrutiny.

Because mayors and City Council members have eight-year term limits, a city manager without term limits has a structural advantage over elected counterparts. With control over the City’s budget, informational resources, and operational apparatus, city managers can distribute favors and collect debts with little public scrutiny. At the same time, powerful economic interests learn to work around elected officials – who will soon be gone anyway – and deal directly with the city manager. And because those economic interests tend to fill elected officials’ campaign coffers, those officials may hesitate to stand up to the city manager on behalf of their constituents.

The result of this democratic deficit is bad public policy. For example, the City is about to spend tens of millions of dollars to remake Alamo Plaza when many residents would be happy with removing the tacky attractions and protecting the missions' structural integrity.

Many argue that spending untold millions on an architecturally dubious “reimagining” of Alamo Plaza is a poorer use of public money than increasing funding for programs that directly improve residents’ lives, such as early childhood education, addiction treatment, or transportation for seniors. Yet that is precisely what is about to unfold. Funding that could have benefited residents instead will flow to Alamo redevelopment contractors.

This kind of politics-as-usual is bad enough on its own terms, but it is especially galling for San Antonians who voted for change in the 2017 municipal elections. That year, an incumbent mayor and two incumbent City Council members were defeated. (Disclosure: I challenged a third incumbent Council member.) But rearranging the deck chairs on a cruise liner does not change the direction of the ship itself, and many felt the 2017 municipal elections neither shifted power to elected officials nor altered the general orientation of our government’s priorities.

Having found electoral politics unavailing when aimed at individual candidates, voters reasonably saw change as requiring electoral politics aimed at our City’s top administrator. After all, limiting our city manager's tenure to eight years might contain the position's power because he or she will have less time to accrue it. By extension, containing the city manager’s power might compel those who seek to influence public policy to redirect their energies away from the city manager and toward our elected representatives.

Perhaps recognizing the appeal of these arguments, Prop B opponents instead defended the status quo on the grounds that capping the city manager’s salary at 10 times the amount of the lowest-paid City employee – approximately $300,000 – would hamper attracting qualified candidates for that position. This argument was self-defeating coming from City Council members, who only earn about one-sixth that, and revealed a disappointingly transactional perspective on why someone might want to serve as city manager. Those of us who believe that public service is a calling offer a different perspective: no city manager worthy of serving San Antonio should be in it only for the money.

However, neither a term limit nor a salary cap for the city manager addresses the more fundamental problems of democratic accountability that inhere in the use of a manager-council form of government in a city as large and complex as San Antonio. Those problems can only be addressed with more robust charter reform, and a significant component of that reform seems clear.

In most major American cities, the mayor is the city government’s chief executive. In such “strong mayor” cities, the democratically elected mayor hires and supervises a senior staff of administrative and policy professionals who directly implement the mayor and city council’s agenda with the help of city staff who develop subject-matter expertise while being protected from corruption by well-developed civil service rules. When the people want a new direction in government, they elect different officials. When they want more of the same, they keep the lot they have. Generally speaking, the will of the electorate translates into public policy. If a truly incompetent mayor is elected, he or she can soon be turned out. Always, the power of unelected administrators remains in check.

Houston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and the District of Columbia are all “strong mayor” cities. Each is economically, socially, and culturally vital. Each holds a warm and permanent place in the national imagination. And each enjoys a measure of democracy deeper than our own. Respect for the consent of the governed requires us to join them.

For the passage of Prop B makes one thing clear: the time for a strong mayor system in San Antonio has come.

17 thoughts on “Passage of Prop B Shows Need for Strong Mayor System

  1. It shows a displeasure in the amount Sculley is paid and will receive as severance when she leaves. There is nothing wrong with our system of local goverment. Look at other cities that have mayor-council run goverment and see how well they are run.

    • Do we really want Chicago’s political mess? City executives should be sheltered from the whims of the electorate and isolated from the ability to use patronage to the detriment of policy, which is why we switched to a council manager form in the first place.

  2. HARD pass on a strong mayor form of government. The council-manager system is more stable and less susceptible to political influence.

  3. This was interesting commentary, but I disagree with this:
    “Sculley’s performance wasn’t questioned during the Prop B debate; rather, the degree of power vested in her position by the city charter came under scrutiny.”

    Her performance and integrity were certainly questioned by the Vote Yes campaign and fire union. The outcomes of this election were driven by accusations and misinformation (but when are they not?), and I don’t think a strong mayor is the answer.

  4. Are you kidding me?

    This is one of the most uninformed, head-in-the-sand commentaries I’ve ever seen on the Rivard Report. And this passage takes the cake — “Houston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and the District of Columbia are all ‘strong mayor’ cities. Each is economically, socially, and culturally vital. Each holds a warm and permanent place in the national imagination. And each enjoys a measure of democracy deeper than our own.”

    Have you actually lived for any significant time in any one of these cities? I spent nearly 20 years living in at least three of these major metros. They are some of the WORST examples of civic leadership around — totally corrupt, inept, broke, and unstable. Philadelphia, Los Angeles, major parts of New York, New Orleans… all have dismal, crumbling public education systems and infrastructure.

    I can assure you that they are all “economically, socially, and culturally vital” *DESPITE* their “strong mayor” system.

    • I agree with you. I’ve never met anyone who holds Houston in a warm and permanent place in the national imagination, not even Houstonians themselves (I’m a former resident). Also, Houston just received news that they are on the verge of insolvency in the coming decade, predicted to spend over $1 billion more than they will take in during that time frame. Chicago is politically corrupt and all my family living there quit education because of how disfunctional Chicago’s education system is. NYC, San Fran, Boston, L.A. and D.C. continue to make headlines on the runaway real estate prices that are leaving many in the middle class homeless or moving to Texas. And people in the know will tell you that “white” New Orleans has made an amazing recovery since Hurrican Katrina but that “black” New Orleans is getting worse.

      • BS I am a Houstonian, born and raised and proud of it! Sylvester Turner, a former city councilman has done a bang-up job getting Houston through Harvey. If there are financial problems perhaps you should point a finger at our state government who has failed to provide funds for recovery!
        Big business is NOT leaving Houston, sorry about that! I find SA city governance to be as corrupt as anything I experience in my lifetime.

  5. Wow, your boss actually let you write a conflicting opinion. I think that is great. I doubt he will keep you around long if you keep actually doing your job. He just wants you to write what he tells you to write. Give it time you will see.

  6. I completely agree with you, Mr. Montaño. Prop A’s defeat & Prop B’s victory show that San Antonio voters want policy decisions made by their elected representatives, not by an unaccountable appointed super-bureaucrat. They will soon realize they favor a major Charter overhaul to a “strong mayor system.” The “city manager system” is fine for a bush league cow town, not for a major city. I hope this becomes a major issue in the 2019 municipal elections, for which campaigning should begin very soon… like yesterday?

  7. The cities you name as being vibrant and well run with a strong mayor are terrible places to live. You gave not made your case.

  8. I disagree with this commentary.
    San Antonio is The only major city in the country with a triple A bond rating. This would have never happened with a mayor running the city. The people elected to city council are controlled by there money backers. And have a short term vision. The city manager and staff are in for the long hall. They can plan infrastructure years in advance and get to see bond projects through to completion. The next city manager will have some big shoes to fill on a reduced salary.

  9. While the system was the same, we had a strong mayor in Julian Castro. He set the agenda (including things like preK that the City manager initially was opposed to) and staff implemented it.

    I supported Ron, but have been disappointed in his reluctance (or inability) to really lead. The fire union propositions are bad policy, but they seized on his weakness to push them through.

    I disagree with the push to move to a strong mayor system. Several of our council people mean well, but regularly have no understanding of what is really going on in council or committee meetings. The turnover of council and politicization of staff would be a disaster for the City.

    I don’t see how your example of the Alamo project would be any different under a strong mayor system, as the project was supported by Mayor and Council.

  10. Beware!
    Do you want one person running the City of San Antonio to further their own agenda?

    What powers does a strong mayor have?

    The mayor is the chief executive officer, centralizing executive power.
    The mayor directs the administrative structure, appointing and removing of department heads.
    While the council has legislative power, the mayor has veto power.
    The council does not oversee daily operations.

    From: Mayoral Powers – National League of Cities

  11. Michael Montaño, thanks for your great insight into the complex & confusing political process … I truly enjoyed your article and agree. Good for you; I live in District 3 and can see so much that the city can improve on in this area alone. There is more to San Antonio than just the Alamo!

  12. Anyone who lived in the city back in the day of the Good Government League and earlier knows that a strong mayoral system we had then was fraught with political influence and cronyism. The city rebelled and voted in the present City-council system to rid ourselves of the bad system we had. Since then, the council has been less political and more diverse. This has been good for the city. No one runs as a democrat or republican.
    As for the salary of our manager, it is obvious to any thinking person that to find, hire, and obtain a person of talent, you have to pay the going rate or above it. Considering the size and complexity of managing a city, our manager is paid far less than if employed in private industry. Comparing the requirement, the present salary is ludicrous compared to four college football coaches who earn in excess of $7 million per year. Those who will apply for city manager at a salary of only $340,000 year will either be up-and-comers without great experience or hacks who have failed to move upward because of lack of ability. I don’t begin to earn the salary our manager does, but I do not begrudge the amount. Sadly, small minds and small earnings seem to go hand in hand.

  13. WOW, heard this same argument this Wednesday at neighborhood association meeting, CCD#6 was keynote speaker. Best action by city was going to 2 year election cycle/8 year term limit; Remember why? those city council members convicted for corruption. The current system is effective; those COSA civil servants work for me, the VOTER, first,go there for issues, then turn to your elected council member.

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