As part of our ongoing series on city regions, Tom Murphy, the former Mayor of Pittsburgh, and William Hudnut, the former Mayor of Indianapolis, explain why cities need elected mayors to provide strong leadership
Across the US over the years, there has been a great deal of experimentation with the forms of governance at the local level.
Early in the history of the US, the form of government for most cities was based on the federal model of separate powers and responsibilities for the executive and legislative branches. Through the 1800s local governments, evolved as did the Federal Government, into systems with strong executive powers.
Mayors assumed control over the day-to-day administration, budget and policy direction for their municipalities. By the late 1800s, into the early 1900s, very powerful mayors had assumed power over their cities including employment, contracts, and even where roads would be located.
The adage power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely describes the situation that existed in many cities.
Boss Tweed in New York epitomised the influence a political organisation was able to exert over the operations of a city. Across the country there were other examples in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City and Pittsburgh to name a few.
The newspapers at the time, and eventually the citizens, reacted to the outrageous behaviour and scandals by supporting a number of reforms both in the administration of government programmes as well as in the very structure of government.
Administratively, civil service practices to protect hiring were instituted; contract reforms for goods and services required bidding and awards to the lower responsible bids were required. In the form of government the powers of mayors often were limited.
Particularly in cities just beginning to grow in the south and west of the US, but also in some cases in older cities, reforms were imposed that took a number of forms.
The first was to reduce the day-to-day responsibilities of mayor for administration and instead put in place some type of city manager, a professional, non-political, protected by the civil service to manage the day-to-day operations of the city without the political favouritism that existed under the old systems.
A system common in many communities is to have the mayor elected as a council person and then elected by the council as mayor.
Another system is to divide the responsibilities of government among the council persons elected - one would have responsibilities for public safety, another for roads etc.
Yet another system has been to maintain the strong mayor system but to enact governmental reforms that limit the mayoral powers to hire and to approve contracts.
At a time when it is so hard to get anything done in a reasonable period of time because of regulations, paperwork and meetings, revisionist history looks back at the old political machines and see them as corrupt but effective in the delivery of services.
So where is the balance? Even some cities that enacted city manager types of governments are now beginning to rethink their choice and are considering moving to a stronger mayor form of government. Cities like Cincinnati and Dallas have explored changing their government. Louisville moved to a combined regional government with a strong mayor.
The most recent thought seems to be that someone needs to be in charge who can be accountable to the voters. An appointed professional staff is not directly accountable to the voters. The trend has been to stronger mayors.
In some cases, mayors and other local officials run in non-partisan elections; in other cases, the candidates run in political parties. In every case the mayor, particularly, in a campaign develops an individual profile often distinct from the party.
Times have changed radically since the progressive movement at the turn of the last century. Then, an effort to professionalise governance led to the establishment of weak mayor systems around the country.
Now, the need is for strong leadership, and that is the job of an elected mayor who cannot be fired by a city council, as a city manager can. This work cannot be done by a part-time, ribbon-cutting official who has little authority over the city's service delivery system.
In short, local government needs a boss, not of the old style where the boss heads a corrupt political organisation, but in the new sense of a leader/mayor in a strong mayor system of government, who establishes a vision for the city, oversees the operation of city departments, works with a city council on such things as budgets, appointments and bond issues, speaks for the city and its people, and represents the city to the outside world, full time and flat out. n Tom Murphy and William Hudnut are senior resident fellows at the Urban Land Institute in Washington DC.