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Elected mayors are more
effective, says US study

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

16 August 2008: An historical study of mayors in US big cities finds that mayors who are popularly elected are more effective than those who come to office through other means. The study, by Andrew D. McNitt* of Eastern Illinois University, examined the performance in office of 846 mayors of 19 US cities -- including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco, Boston, and Houston – between 1820 and 1995.

Measuring performance
The study describes performance in office as “what mayors do or are believed to have done during their terms in office. It is what they both claim credit for, and are held responsible for. In short, it is what happens while they are in charge, and as such, it is a measurable variable which is conceptually distinct from… the unanswerable questions of motive and the problems associated with normative judgments as to who are the best or worst mayors.”

The McNitt study measures mayoral accomplishments in three public policy areas: (1) physical and organizational development of their cities, such as constructing public works, annexing land, instituting urban renewal programs, developing land use planning, and professionalizing their cities’ bureaucracies; (2) conflict resolution and law enforcement, including all efforts to control riots, resolve community disputes, regulate public behavior, and modernize police forces; and, (3) provision of social services, including building hospitals and schools, providing housing, health care and public assistance, and intervening in the marketplace to reduce the costs to consumers of transportation and energy.

Measuring performance in these three policy areas provides a relatively simple and straightforward indication of what a mayor has done.

The author selected a long time range (1820-1995) to determine if there have been substantial behavioral changes in the kinds of activities in which mayors engage. Seeking information over such a long period of time, however, prevented the author from using budgetary indications of mayors’ accomplishments. Instead, the author examined the historical record, including newspapers and local history collections.

The study notes that correlations between the three policy areas are weak. In other words, accomplishments in one area are generally unrelated to accomplishments in another area. This implies that there is more than one kind of successful mayor. There are those who specialize in making physical improvements; others who concentrate on providing human services; and others who focus on law enforcement. Very few American mayors are credited with success in all three areas.

There are also minor correlations between mayoral governance and political party affiliation, political style, religious orientation, and previous professions. For example, mayors who implement improvements in law enforcement are more likely to be lawyers and Republicans. Mayors who effectively promote the physical development of their cities are more likely to be Catholic, but not necessarily Democrats, the traditional party affiliation of American Catholics. They are also more likely to govern cities with relatively few foreign-born residents and relatively more African-American residents.

The strongest indicator of success – across all policy areas and all personal traits – is election to office. Mayors who are not initially elected by popular referendum are less likely to have accomplishments in any of the three policy areas.

In the US, the unelected mayor is often regarded as a caretaker, not a city executive. In other words, mayors who lack an initial electoral connection with their constituencies often begin their careers under a cloud. They are frequently considered ceremonial figures, and little is expected from this class of office holders.

Certainly, historical data cannot fully capture the underlying and unique political realities which each mayor faces. Accomplishments in office are closely related to mayoral preferences and skills, the public’s demand for services, government structure, and the political and economic circumstances mayors encounter.

What this study illustrates is that a mayor’s capacity to implement change – regardless of the underlying circumstances -- is greater when the mayor is directly elected by the people. 

McNitt, A. D., Performance in Office of Big City Mayors: 1820-1995. (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April, 2006.) www.allacademic.com/meta/p138841_index.html

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