The following is a heavily edited version of a very wonky thing I wrote on one of those Des Moines Facebook Pages. In that post, a resident creates a poll of “who should be mayor!” and then discusses the job in terms of “Rule 5”. I’m redoing it here because although it’s super-wonky and boring and repetitious, every once in a while I accidentally hit on something that matters about local politics and this is it.
Introducing: The Hidden World Below!
Now, the rest of my original Facebook comment reads to me a bit like one of those grade school film strips trying to get kids to appreciate the wonders of the public sewer system. You know, “The Hidden World Below!” 😀 I mean, OK, you can’t live without it, but do you really want to know what’s going on?
My goal here is not so much to get you to appreciate this particular wonder of local politics anymore than I think you should fall in love with the Midway Sewer District. But I do think you should know that it’s there, whether you see it or not. In fact, I wish there was an ‘explainer’ of the political roles of the Council and Mayor included in every voters packet (or at least as part of Councilmember training). At least then every voter would learn that, yes even in small town Des Moines, politics is politics
The rules are not the game
The role of Mayor is described in our Council Rules Of Procedure–primarily in these two sentences from Rule 5:
The Mayor shall preside at meetings of the Council, and be recognized as the head of the City for all ceremonial purposes. The Mayor shall have no regular administrative or executive duties.
That makes the job sound pretty innocuous, right? Sort of ‘impartial referee’ at meetings and ‘ribbon cutter’ on weekends. But to describe the job of Mayor in CMG in those terms (or any of the other Rules) is to almost completely misunderstand (or misrepresent) what the position really is. Yes, even in a small town like Des Moines. I would never criticize any individual for putting it that way–after all, that is what the rules say, right? Plus, I’ve heard lots and lots and lots of people put it that way over the years. But we should stop doing that, K? Because Rule 5 is not only a small fraction of the actual job, putting it in terms of any ‘Rule’ can’t actually explain the job.
See the Rules Of Procedure are just like the rules to any game. Yes, they give you some basic instructions, but they can’t tell you how the game is actually played.
Mayor as Majority Leader
OK, so here it is, playah:
The unwritten, but real authority of the Mayor in Council-Manager Government (CMG) is as leader of the majority of the City Council.
It’s a lot like being the Majority Leader of the US Senate. That’s what the job really is in CMG. It was designed as a ceremonial and non-partisan position. But since the first day a majority elected a mayor, every CMG mayor on earth has functioned with that political authority. Yes, even in a small town like Des Moines. And anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or wants you to believe something that is not true. (Perhaps because the notion that our lovely town might have a ‘political sewer system’ doesn’t sound all that appealing? 😀 ) Look, I don’t want to torture this metaphor. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually essential to how our Council runs. So don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.
The Mayor’s role as majority leader may not be written down anywhere, but again it should be (just like Majority Leader in the Senate). And let’s be clear: I’m not saying I have a better system laying about. I just think the public (and CMs) should properly understand.
Now what does it mean to be majority leader?
First of all, a CMG City Council is 100% majoritarian. All or nothing voting. 24/7/365 the Mayor has exactly the authority that the majority supports. Note that I did not say ‘the Council’. Whatever authority a mayor has flows from the majority; not the full Council.
Second, the role presiding officer has an in-built potential for bias. Remember: he gets to vote on every issue, just like every other Councilmember. So to a very real extent, he functions as both judge and jury member. He was elected by his majority–at least in part, to further a shared vision, not because he’s some paragon of impartiality. That doesn’t make impartiality impossible, but this tension should always be freely acknowledged. He is the leader of the majority. Not some ‘referee’.
Third, the Council functions according to a written set of rules. Those rules define both the Council and the Mayor and they are what the majority says they are. These can be formally changed by a majority vote at any time.
Finally, however, Council Rules are not laws. The City Council is self-policing–again (as always) by a vote of the majority. And that has three big features:
- At any time, either on or off the dais, the Mayor has great flexibility to interpret or add to or reduce or modify his authority and even, to a large extent, ignore certain rules–so long as the majority does not object. Our current Mayor has done so many times. That’s not being snippy, it’s just a fact. Every CMG mayor does it (at least a teeny, weeny bit) from time to time. So long as the majority is cool? It’s cool.
- If anyone has a problem with anything the Mayor or the Council does–the majority must agree to take action.
- There are rarely any external penalties for bending or even breaking meeting rules. At this point, I should probably point out that this is neither complaint or hyperbole. Again, it’s just how CMG works in the State Of Washington. Feel free to Google ‘Open Public Meetings Act Violations in Washington’ (OPMA) or connect with me for specifics.
So… what does that mean for the public?
Well first of all, it means that you should probably understand what candidates actually believe in–and who he/she is likely to align with and why when you vote. Because it is a member of that majority who will become the next Mayor.
Second, stop acting like we have a strong mayor. If you don’t like something the Mayor is doing? Tell his colleagues.
Focusing attention solely on the Mayor is not only unfair to him, it’s misinformed and counter-productive. Because it stokes the impossible narrative that you can be a good CM who supports a bad Mayor. C’mon: a ‘good’ CM would always object whenever the Mayor gets out of line. (Did I mention we’re supposed to be self-policing? 🙂 )
Again, again, CMG is 100% majoritarian. All or nothing. Every action the Mayor takes is because of the support (or lack thereof) of the majority. Whenever a Mayor goes beyond a ceremonial function in any way, he is actually working for the majority, not the other way round.
Ironically, the only time I ever focus attention solely on the Mayor? Is in his ceremonial role–when he’s really in his Rule 5 mode. That’s when he is on his own. If he did a bad job at a ribbon cutting? I’d be upset. Our Mayor does a fine job with those sorts of things. 🙂
So it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that there no are good or bad Mayors in CMG. The Mayor can only be as good at any given moment as the majority.
OK, sorry, that was a bit over the top. 😃 There totally are bad CMG Mayors that don’t reflect their council majority. But not many. And BTW, regardless of our ‘differences’, our Mayor is not one of them.
Choose the right majority
If any or all of this seems like some thinly veiled grouse at our current Council, it’s not. All CMG Mayors and Councils have exactly the same incentives and challenges–and that’s the real point: the role of Mayor matters far less than the members of the majority. There are definite requirements for being a good mayor in CMG and they are not chopped liver. But if you have a fair and competent majority, you tend to have fairer rules and better governance regardless of who they choose to be Mayor. If you don’t? You can have all the rules you want, pal! Because, for the umpteenth time, it’s majority rules in this here town.
The purpose of this novella
Anyhoo, I just wanted to describe the political role of Mayor in CMG. Yes, it’s Rule 5, but just as the Senate Majority Leader, our Mayor’s real authority is as head the majority that voted for him/her to be their leader. A Councilmember may not put it like that. They may not like it much. They may not have even thought about it like that. But, not to torture the metaphor, this really is like “The Hidden World Below” I opened with. You don’t have to talk about it, like it or even know it exists to use it every day. 😀