In December 2009, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon was convicted of embezzlement

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Powerful-mayor government
does not serve public interest

By David B Levy*

8 December 2009: Following the conviction of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon on one count of embezzlement, David B Levy, the author of this article, argues that to a greater degree than many people in the city realize, the structure of Baltimore’s municipal government contributes to the stream of painful news stories about how ‘inside’ influence affects government decisions.

The strong-mayor system, in which all key policy and management decisions flow from the mayor's authority, was eliminated from thousands of US local governments in the 20th century, beginning with the ‘good government’ reforms of the Progressive Era. However, Baltimore's government never experienced those reforms, meaning that Baltimoreans still live in a ‘boss’ system where almost all hope, credit and blame end up singularly associated with the mayor.

It is clear that developers and other interest groups perceive - probably correctly - that the best method to gain decisions in their favor is to ‘grease’ the pathway. Sometimes that grease is pure corruption. More frequently, it is some version of interest peddling that does not quite rise to the level of outright corruption. Either way, it bends governmental decisions away from the public interest and toward the private interest of those doing the greasing.

The best-managed and cleanest local governments in the United States are not strong-mayor governments; they are council-manager governments. This is the structure of almost half of the local governments in the US. There are a few varieties of this form of government, in terms of the roles of the mayor and the city council; In all of them, however, the job of the mayor is not to be the chief executive officer, with responsibility for day-to-day management and decision-making. That job is handled by a professional city manager hired by the mayor and city council. There are universities that train these managers, who would bring expertise in management/administration and an ethic of clean and efficient government.

In this system, the mayor and the city council together set policy, make laws/ordinances, and establish and approve the budget. They also provide oversight of operations, holding the city manager to account. The city manager is responsible for hiring and management.

One way to think of this structure is that the mayor and the city council would be like a board of trustees, with the mayor chairing the board and the city manager as the hired CEO.

One great advantage of this system is that it insulates day-to-day management from the intrusion of politics. There would be no benefit of ‘greasing’ decisions with the mayor or with individual council members, because they would not have that sort of power. Of course, there would be a risk that this influence greasing would move over to the bureaucracy staff, but that is not how it has turned out. Experience around the country is that council-manager systems tend to be far cleaner.

In order to change over to the system that such large cities as Phoenix, San Jose (California), and Austin (Texas) have, the movement will need to come from the citizens, who would need to be ready to get rid of the concept of the mayor as municipal savior. Such a charter-reform movement would have the goal of overcoming the cynicism that pervades conversations about Baltimore's city government and have the ideal of creating a government about which the citizens could be proud - but would still be vigilant.

*David B. Levy is a former employee in the Baltimore Housing and Community Development and Planning departments. In the early 1990s, he served as Special Assistant to the Mayor of Quito, Ecuador. He also advised other local governments, both in the US and in Latin America.

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