Spokane has a weak-mayor form of government.
Does that mean the city’s mayor can’t be strong?
It depends on who answers the question.
“There’s a sense in which it’s impossible,” says Blaine Garvin, a political science professor at Gonzaga University. “It’s impossible to have more legal power than you’re given … In fact, the system was meant to weaken the role of the mayor. They didn’t want a strong mayor when they wrote this system.”
“I think the weak and strong terms are part of the problem,” says Jim Svara, the director of the public administration program at North Carolina State University in Charlotte. “I think it’s possible to be effective … to help get key things done.”
Mayoral candidates on the Sept. 16 primary all promise to be powerful forces if elected. But when a city manager oversees the day-to-day operation, some experts say it’s hard for a part-time mayor to be much more than a ribbon-cutter.
Under Spokane’s current government form in place since 1960 the city manager runs everyday business such as managing the budget and appointing department heads. The manager takes policy direction from the council.
The city’s charter gives limited authority to the mayor. He or she can’t hire and fire, veto legislation or draft a spending plan for the council’s consideration.
As described in the charter, the mayor “shall be recognized as the official head of the city government for all ceremonial purposes.” In circumstances of extreme emergency, the mayor can take charge of the police - but only with the council’s OK.
Garvin says the council-manager government form grew from abuses of power epitomized by the “mayoral machines” in Chicago and New York City at the turn of the century, when political patronage and nepotism ran unchecked.
“It all dates back to the progressive era of the early 20th century when they wanted to make government more professional, more businesslike,” Garvin says. “City managers were supposed to be nonpolitical administrators.
“The council gives policy. The experts carry it out.”
Because every policy needs a majority of the council’s support, Garvin maintains it’s difficult for Spokane’s mayor to be a strong leader. “The people on the council are not going to just automatically agree with you because you say something forcefully,” he says.
North Carolina’s Svara sees strength where Garvin sees weakness. Although the mayor in a city manager government may not be making “individual proposals, twisting arms or telling people what to do,” he or she can be an effective leader by promoting cohesion among colleagues and helping them set goals.
“The mayor can be the critical catalyst to make that goal-setting possible,” he says, adding that he or she can keep council members focused by not letting short-range issues divert their attentions.
Regardless of the powers doled out by the charter, the mayor can be a true leader by being out in the community, promoting a project or issue, Svara says.
Terry Novak, Spokane’s former city manager, echoes Svara’s sentiments.
Novak says he witnessed strong leadership in mayors like Jim Chase and Vicki McNeill. Chase would sit down with Novak at the beginning of each year and lay out a plan. “He’d say, ‘My major goals for the year are “a” and “b”’ and at the end of the year, he’d have them done,” Novak says.
McNeill knew how to lobby state and county governments for money and legislation, Novak says. “The mayor has to view himself or herself as part of an intergovernmental system that goes far beyond the City Hall.”
A strong mayor, regardless of the government form, has a sense of vision and doesn’t just react to items on a meeting agenda, Novak says. “It’s really easy for elected bodies … to just respond to what the staff lays before them.”
Roger Crum, also a former Spokane city manager, thinks a feel for the big picture can make or break a mayor. “I think not having to worry about all the administrative stuff should free people to concentrate on major policy direction,” he says. “They can be looking forward 15 years, saying, ‘This is what needs to happen.”’
The four major candidates for mayor pledge strong leadership if elected. Several attempts to reach a fifth candidate, David Howell, have been unsuccessful.
Incumbent Jack Geraghty says the mayor’s role as the city’s spokesperson gives the job authority and power. While he isn’t a flamboyant leader, he says, he is effective.
“My style is, I believe, in working through the system, trying to build a consensus. I believe I’ve been able to do that,” Geraghty says.
Sheri Barnard, a former mayor making another run, says her key to strength is a willingness to take chances.
“You must be innovative and a risk taker,” she says. “You must be willing to make mistakes, willing to try new things.”
Duane Sommers says if he’s elected, he doesn’t want to rely on staff recommendations, but have options for various issues offered to the council.
“I really don’t want to just take recommendations from the staff …” he says. “My role is to be much more informed than the council.”
John Talbott says the ticket to a strong mayor is using “God-given qualities: honesty, integrity and loyalty. Those are the qualities. Absent those, you lack the respect of those below you.”
Mayor Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, Mo., praises the so-called “weak mayor” government he’s been a part of the past five years.
It’s all about building consensus and setting direction, Cleaver says.
“I always say all the stars would need to be in place for that to occur, but such was the case for me,” Cleaver says. “There has to be a growing demand for a visible leader with the kind of personality that lends itself to forming coalitions.”
He recently struck a deal with a motorcycle manufacturer to move to Kansas City - even before he’d taken his plan to the council. “I believed I had the votes to get it done,” he says.