EL PASO WAS A MESS. “Mayors got elected every two years, with an eight-year limit, and almost nobody—with one exception—made it for four terms,” explains David Crowder, a reporter for El Paso Inc. newspaper. With each new mayor came a new set of goals, a new set of projects, and a new direction. “It became difficult to get anything done.”
Then, in 2004, after 130 years of mayors, the city switched to a council-manager system of governance. An elected council now appoints a city manager to monitor the city budget, oversee public relations, and marshal municipal operations. The appointee, unlike a mayor, does not possess any unilateral governing power. (Not all council-manager systems oust the role. El Paso still has a mayor who makes some administrative appointments and can cast a council vote in the case of a tie.)
The result, say observers—Crowder among them—is a better El Paso. Improvements in mass transit and a shift toward effective, smart growth have all been direct consequences of a more efficient, streamlined government with a manager who is directly accountable to a council. More than 3,500 cities around the nation have a similar system, including Dallas, Phoenix, Sacramento, and, closer to home, Bellevue.
Meanwhile, Seattle mayor Mike McGinn isn’t exactly winning popularity contests. (A recent poll by EMC Research revealed that 56 percent of voters rate McGinn unfavorably.) His predecessor, Greg Nickels, was so loathed he didn’t even make it past the primary election in 2009. Police misconduct, thwarted transportation measures, and epic battles with state government (ahem, deep-bore tunnel) in recent years have made the office of the mayor not only unpopular, but seemingly ineffective.
Is it time for Seattle to retire the head honcho?
Reed Davis, a political science professor at Seattle Pacific University, insists that efficient government comes at a price. Because a city’s Big Cheese is elected, citizens have a voice in city government, Davis explains. Replace the elected mayor with an appointed manager and “you trade a political voice for a technocrat.” In a mayor-council system, he explains, “there is a check on the tendency to abuse power.”
Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess agrees. “A mayor’s approval rating is not justification for throwing out the form of government. Elections can cure low approval ratings.”
Burgess, it should be noted, will likely make a run for the mayor’s seat in 2013.