We were joking the other day that we ought to keep calling Pete Buttigieg “Mayor Pete” even after he wins the presidency in 2020.
The mayor of South Bend, Indiana has attracted attention for his philosophical bent; he extrapolates from running South Bend to running the world, and is careful to explain that he is a “strong mayor.”
He means that in South Bend, the mayor is the elected chief executive. In the other common form of city government, council-manager, the mayor has more limited powers, such as in Cortez and Durango.
South Bend is a relatively small city. Of the 100 largest cities in the U.S., 47 have strong mayor governments (including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) and 46 have council-manager governments (including Phoenix, Dallas and Las Vegas).
Buttigieg says his experience sets him apart from other candidates. Speaking to the public radio program Here & Now, he said, “An executive, especially in a strong mayor system like the one that I’ve been governing in for going on eight years, that’s a role where you were on the hook for everything. ... When you get something hitting your desk that could be anything from an economic development deal to an officer-involved shooting or an emergency operation center activation for a weather situation, you learn the urgency of public service and government work.”
One of the ways you learn that is that you are accountable to voters. Four years after Buttigieg won the office, they decided whether to rehire him, just as they do with the president.
Durango once had a strong mayor, from 1881 until 1915. He was paid $25 a month, roughly the equivalent of $700 a month today. In 1904, Charles E. McConnell was elected Durango mayor, vowing that public utilities such as electric light and the street railway “and those conveniences which go to make up a people’s greatness and safety” would be controlled by the city, not private interests. Durango and the rest of the U.S. were now in the Progressive Era. In 1907, city aldermen discovered McConnell had accepted $25 to license a tent and pony vaudeville show. He resigned on the spot. The Durango mayor’s pay was cut to $20 a month.
On June 11, 1912, Sumter, South Carolina, became the first city in the U.S. to adopt the council-manager form of government. It began with the then-reformist idea that if local government worked more like a corporation, it would have an elected board that would hire a chief executive. On September 3, in a charter election, Durango became the second. The city hired its first manager, Andrew F. Hood, an undertaker and former mayor, in 1915. (That’s his name on Hood Mortuary on Durango’s East Third Avenue.)
Today, there are over 2,700 council-manager city governments in the U.S. Durango was a leader on this, but yesterday’s progressivism can fall victim to today’s reform. Would Durango or Cortez be better off today electing strong mayors?
Durango’s city manager, Ron LeBlanc, just passed his 11-year mark in office, following Bob Ledger, who filled it from 1982 to 2007. Cortez City Council hired John Dougherty as city manager almost a year ago, replacing Shane Hale, who had been in the job for six years, following Jay Harrington.
Electing a strong mayor in either city would not necessarily make the cities more or less stable. Along with term limits, however, it would give voters a say, probably once every four years, in the direction of the city. Ideally.
The question to ask, in this new Buttigieg-progressive era of strong mayors, is, how confident are you in the ability of your city council to find and retain the best person to lead, as opposed to your own ability?