Should Austin switch to a 'strong-mayor' system?


At the Austin City Council’s recent orientation, Terrell Blodgett wrapped up his PowerPoint lecture with two cautionary bullet points.

Blodgett, professor emeritus at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, told the council that one former mayor had recently been advocating for a “strong-mayor” form of government in Austin. Blodgett urged the council not to buy in.

One, Blodgett said, that would contradict a key principle underlying the new single-member district system of electing council members — the principle of spreading power rather than concentrating it. Two, it would make council members “second-class citizens” compared to the mayor, he said.

“I believe you would prefer to be a council member in Austin rather than in Houston,” Blodgett said to the council.

The five largest U.S. cities — including Houston — have strong-mayor governments, typically meaning the mayor appoints a chief administrator, and along with the City Council, hires and fires city department heads. Strong-mayor cities can allow the mayor to veto items, write the budget, and appoint members of city boards and commissions with council confirmation.

In Austin, however, the mayor has much less power under the “council-manager” form of government that’s been in place here for more than 90 years. The mayor and City Council set policy that is then carried out by a council-chosen city manager. The city manager hires department heads.

Former Austin Mayor Carole Keeton first began calling for a strong-mayor government more than two decades ago, and in recent public appearances, she’s hit on the same talking point. Several other former mayors also back the idea of a strong-mayor system but aren’t actively pushing for one.

A strong-mayor government would give the mayor and council more responsibility for running the city, meaning voters would know who to hold accountable — and get the chance every few years to decide whether those elected officials get to keep their jobs, Keeton said in an interview.

Austin’s council-manager system creates layers of bureaucracy that can shroud who’s on the hook for city actions, she said. There may also be unnecessary duplication that winds up costing taxpayers, Keeton said.

For instance, city staff may back a certain idea, but the City Council might disagree and hire a consultant to prove its point, Keeton said.

The council-manager form of government is meant for smaller cities where serving as mayor or council member is a part time job, and those elected officials don’t have staffs of their own, Keeton said. But in Austin, the mayor’s and council members’ staffs have grown over time, potentially leading to overlap with city staff, Keeton said.

The mayor of Austin makes $82,388 a year and each council member makes $70,074, though the council plans to consider a resolution that would allow them to use their salaries, if they desire, on office expenses instead. The budget for each council member can pay for two executive assistants and one executive secretary.

Mayor Steve Adler wants to divert his pay to hiring more staff, and is even inquiring about the possibility of using outside funding to bring a few senior policy advisers on board. Adler said he’s looking to expand his office because the mayor is now the only member of the City Council who is elected citywide, answering to all voters. But he said he hasn’t given the topic of a strong-mayor government much thought.

“I’m not focused on that at all,” Adler said. “I’m focused on trying to make the system we have work more effectively and more efficiently.”

Keeton said that switching to a strong-mayor system is the next logical overhaul, now that Austin is electing council members by geographic districts and holding city elections in even years in November — other changes Keeton had long advocated, saying that they would increase participation in local government.

Keeton said the council should put together a citizens’ task force to study strong-mayor cities versus counil-manager cities. Changing to a strong-mayor system would be a lengthy process that includes a charter election, Keeton said.

Blodgett cited the city of Denver’s charter as an example of how far a strong-mayor government can be taken. In Denver, the mayor can approve contracts of up to $499,999 without council approval, and if the mayor can’t serve, a member of his or her cabinet not an elected council member — assumes the role of acting mayor.

Under a council-manager government, a professionally trained city manager is running the show, whereas strong mayors may tap a former business partner or a campaign manager to the chief administrator position, Blodgett said. Of Texas’ 10 largest cities, Houston is the only one with a strong-mayor government.

Former Mayors Lee Leffingwell and Bruce Todd said that, in a city as large as Austin, the public can demand more of the mayor than he or she actually has the power to accomplish. The mayor presides over meetings and serves as the city’s official representative, but is just one of 11 votes on the council.

Blodgett said that a mayor, “by the force of personality,” can still enact major change even when a city manager is in the picture. It is also to the city manager’s advantage to carry out the wishes of the council majority, as a majority can remove the manager from office, Blodgett said. (Blodgett served as assistant city manager in Austin from 1950 to 1960, and as city manager of Waco and Garland afterward).

Former Mayor Frank Cooksey, who served from 1985 to 1988, recalled drafting an ordinance to create a city economic development and international trade department that the council passed. The city manager dragged his feet on including funding for the department in the city budget, Cooksey said.

Cooksey and the council later fired the city manager.

A key way the mayor can gain more influence in a council-manager government is by hiring a new city manager, former mayor Lee Cooke said.

“Having the city manager feeling somewhat beholden to you, even though it has to be ratified by the whole council, is very powerful under the council-manager form of government,” said Cooke, who said he hired Austin’s first female city manager when he was mayor, after asking for the previous city manager’s resignation.



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