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There were not many efforts to change form of government during the November election cycle this year. However, Lewiston, Idaho (pop. ~33,000), was one of the cities with a form of government referendum on the ballot. Ultimately, on November 2, 2021, the people of Lewiston voted to change from a council-manager system to a strong mayor system (54% to change to mayor-council to 46% to maintain council-manager form).

The impetus for the change was a stated desire by the people to elect the mayor position. The effort was led by the same political activists who pushed for a strong mayor system in 2001, which failed with 60% of the vote against it. This time, they appealed to the notion that a city manager is not accountable to the people and that the only way to maintain accountability is through the election process. The emphasis on an elected mayor as working for the people in contrast to an unelected city manager who controls city hall with unchecked power persuaded voters to adopt a strong mayor form of government.

Compounding the issue to dissuade from understanding the actual distinctions between the forms of government was a confusing voter ballot. Voters did not vote on whether to adopt a mayor-council system. Rather, they voted on whether to retain the current council-manager system. Thus, a “yes” vote maintained the status quo, and a “no” vote forced adoption of the mayor-council system. Further, individuals for elected office were presented based on the form of government that ultimately was adopted. This created a situation whereby voters who support a particular candidate could be influenced on how to vote for the form of government question since the proposed council-manager status quo allows only four council members to be elected and the mayor-council proposition allowed six candidates to be elected.

Lessons Learned

Discussions over form of government need to clarify that the critical distinction is whether government operates better when all elected officials and staff collaborate on behalf of the people (as established in council-manager form) or when the council is separated from any oversight of the administration of government (as established in mayor-council form). The desire to have a popularly elected mayor at-large within a city is not a distinction between the forms of government. Certainly, council-manager cities often have a mayor elected at-large to serve on the council.

Managers/administrators under a council-manager form of government must be diligent in maintaining community engagement and transparency. This election focused heavily on the idea that the city manager is able to withhold information from council and direct policy decisions–particularly around the budget. The city manager was presented as an obstacle to transparency and an agent in control of government policies and operation. Ironically, the solution offered is to impose a strong mayor system, which necessarily provides those powers to a singularly elected mayor. The strength of the council-manager form is that the council has ultimate power over policy and over the administration of government insofar as they are able to terminate the city manager at any time. City managers must make transparent their role as advisors on policy—not decision-makers on policy. This is particularly important on budget matters. Otherwise, the manager is easily presented as having equal powers as a strong mayor. And so, we must demonstrate how our role is dramatically different if we are to maintain the claim that the council-manager form provides greater accountability and voice to the people.

Currently, there are a number of cities and counties considering amendments to their charter in hopes of having ballot language in 2022. ICMA and its members must be diligent in helping to explain not only how the form of government operates but helping to identify whether desired changes to the structure of government are necessary to accomplish specific goals and outcomes.

Communities Having Conversations about Their Form of Government

Some communities that we have engaged with over the past year whom we anticipate bringing forward potential changes to their charter as they investigate potential changes to the form of government include:

Portland, Oregon: Charter Commission is investigating potential changes in their form of government (currently operate under a commission form) and to their election processes

Portland, Maine: Charter Review Commission is investigating changes to the form of government. While the commission has not yet offered a recommendation, they are considering whether to change from council-manager to strong mayor system.

Ithaca, New York: Council is considering a change from a mayor-council system to a council-manager system, though final ballot language will have to be written and presented.

Maui County, Hawaii: Considering adding the position of county administrator to provide professional management experience in its county mayor-council system.

 

 

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