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A weaker mayor? A stronger mayor may be a better answer

October 09, 2005|By TIM ROWLAND

Dissatisfied with the performance of Mayor Dick Trump, the Hagerstown City Council is rumbling about the need to revise the city charter in order to rein in what little power the office of mayor currently possesses.

Yes, the council should change the charter - but in the opposite direction. If the past two months have proved anything it is the need for the city to have a strong-mayor system of government, not a pathetically weak one.

Perhaps I need to explain myself.

First, the changes should take effect with the next administration, not this one. Second, one portion of the council's plan should indeed be implemented, that being that a mayor must be elected with a majority vote. If there are three strong candidates and none get more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff should be held between the top two vote-getters. This protects against a fringe candidate or a single-issue candidate gaining office.

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But beyond that, it should be clear by now that a weak-mayor system promotes dysfunction. If Hagerstown were ever in need of a strong-mayor system, it's now, when private investors are starting to sit up and take notice of the city.

If a developer has a plan, who does he or she go to now? The mayor? There's no point. The staff? They're getting yanked in six different directions (or at least two or three) as it stands now. A council member? Which one? They all have differing views. The city needs a point-person in a position to lead, with the powers to back that leadership up.

Of the frustrations with the office that Trump has vented upon, one has particular merit. It's maddeningly hard to keep the council on-point, moving along and focused on what's important.

Instead of one mayor, Hagerstown effectively has five. Each council member is equal in power, with the mayor - who has no vote - actually beneath them in terms of influence.

Consequently, the council can get hung up for a half-hour discussing fencing around a ball field. It employs a consent agenda (a grocery list of housekeeping items that allows them to vote all the noncontroversial items at once) but you have to wonder why. They spend so much time debating what should and shouldn't be a consent item that all expediency is lost.

This is not a new phenomenon. Former Mayor Steve Sager voiced astonishment that the council could spend 45 minutes discussing - literally - the quality of municipal toilet paper. (The texture was deemed "too rough.") But then it would turn around and approve a million dollar construction contract with no debate whatsoever.

A weak mayor, particularly a disliked weak mayor, is powerless to keep the council's energy focused on things that matter.

A weak, or ceremonial mayor whose main function is to call the meetings to order and attend ribbon cuttings, is of no great harm in sleepy towns where little of consequence is going on. But we've grown up, and our offices need to reflect that.

Suppose though what the current council might consider a worst case scenario: We have a strong-mayor system and someone such Trump, i.e., a philosophical and party opponent, is elected. Bottom line, what would the council be sacrificing? The mayor could set the agenda, but the council would still retain a 5-1 voting advantage. The mayor's initiatives would be dead in the water without a council majority.

Council members were offended that Trump, on his own, wrote to the state seeking a resolution to the city's ongoing sewer problems. But so what? No one believes these problems should not be resolved, it's just that offense was taken that the mayor took the action without consulting the council as a whole.

But this is precisely the type of issue that a leader needs to take hold of. The council, which was of a majority in the past administration too, cannot exactly claim to have made a stunning success of the city's sewer system over the past several years. It's been spinning its wheels, and if it needed a, albeit unpopular, kick in the pants to move off of ground zero, I see no harm in that.

And if solutions are proposed that the council does not like, again, it has the votes to quash them. Indeed, a strong mayor actually offers the council a degree of political cover. If the leadership proves to be of poor quality, there is clear accountability. The council should like that.

The council may believe the voters are laying blame for the ongoing mayor-council mess squarely at the feet of Trump, and to a degree they are correct. But council members need to be careful. Probably a third or more of the electorate does not see city government in terms of personalities, they see it in terms of whether the city is moving forward or not.

This battle weighs heavily on Trump, but it weighs on the council too. When election time comes, if voters decide the city is not progressing, they will hold the council responsible too, for being unable to play well with others, if nothing else. And they will look for new faces, not just in the mayor's chair, but all around.

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