Lansing is bracing for another mayoral election this year. And with an incumbent accused of racism and a challenger accused of sexual harassment, some residents are beginning to doubt whether the government structure of the Capital City is best run by a so-called “strong mayor.”
Current and former elected officials in Lansing recall quiet conversations that date back to the early ‘90s in which residents have contemplated a revision to the city charter — one that would subvert executive power from the Mayor’s Office, instead handing the reins to a city manager who answers exclusively to the City Council. It’s the most popular form of municipal government across the country. And political dissatisfaction breeds renewed desires for systemic change.
“Historically, strong mayors are visionaries. They don’t focus on the nitty gritty and take a much larger, bigger picture sort of approach,” said former Lansing Mayor David Hollister, who served from 1993 to 2003. “But that’s not automatic just because you’re in the position. You might have a clunker or two along the way, and this conversation always seems to come up at those times.”
Hollister isn’t naming names, but he understands where the latest chatter might be coming from. Mayor Andy Schor is facing multiple racial discrimination lawsuits. Challenger and former three-term Mayor Virg Bernero is accused of two separate instances of sexual harassment.
“This conversation always seems to begin during elections or after the mayor makes a controversial decision or does something unilaterally without the Council,” said Councilman Brian Jackson. “Regardless, I think that’s something people might be interested in exploring. I like the idea of separating management of the city and its finances from politics altogether.”
Cities in Michigan operate under their choice of three types of local government structures: council-manager, strong mayor and weak mayor. In Lansing, the strong mayor system is ingrained into the charter, giving broad authority to a directly elected mayor (who doesn’t serve on the Council) to hire and fire administrative officials and to dictate much of the city’s finances.
Lansing’s charter makes the mayor the “conservator of the peace,” the city’s top law enforcement official as well as enables broad supervision over several city departments and properties. Mayors can impose curfews to “suppress disorder.” It’s also their job to prepare and propose the annual budget. They also have power to veto proposed changes from the Council.
The charter also makes the mayor responsible for “reducing any unlawful discrimination and increasing mutual understanding among residents” and requires he or she to “investigate and respond to all requests for information and all complaints concerning the operation of the city.”
It’s a big job — and one held by only 33 mayors in Michigan. The vast majority of Michigan’s 273 cities instead operate under the direction of a city manager, often someone trained in municipal finance, who is hired directly by and serves at the will of the elected City Council.
With a city manager, “weak mayors” can still exist, but they’re effectively reduced to just another member of the legislative body. Like in East Lansing, they serve in a largely symbolic leadership role that wields mostly ceremonial authorities. It’s not much more than a title or a sash.
Michigan Municipal Executives labels the council-manager form of government as the “fastest growing form of government in the United States.” National surveys also show that about 55% of governments operated under a weak mayor in 2006 — a jump from 48% tracked in 1996.
But is it the right decision for Lansing? Hollister, Schor and Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley — who plans to announce her mayoral campaign this week — prefer to keep things the same. Bernero didn’t return calls this week, but has never been big on subjugating his own authority.
“It’s just in our DNA to have a strong mayor,” Hollister said. “It takes a sophisticated understanding of how things work, but I think the people want a strong person at the top. The election of a mayor creates a clear line of accountability. They’re supposed to set the tone.”
Spitzley recognizes that she has personal interests in maintaining power in the Mayor’s Office.
“That’s not to say we can’t change the charter to create some additional oversight, even with a strong mayor. There needs to be more checks and balances, particularly when it comes to the mayor’s ability to enter into contracts, but overall, I support the strong mayor form,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Schor’s office said that a strong mayor system “ensures that the mayor directs how the government serves the people.” And he has no plans to pursue any changes.
Bernero stopped responding to calls from City Pulse after sexual harassment allegations surfaced against him. Other current and former elected officials in Lansing were on the fence.
“I would support looking at alternative forms of governance,” explained Council President Peter Spadafore. “When I looked at it pre-pandemic, it proved to be much more complicated than I thought since the strong mayor form of government is so ingrained in our charter.”
Changes to Lansing’s charter require a resolution adopted with a supermajority vote of at least six of eight members of the Council or through a petition signed by at least 5% of registered voters that is later decided through an election. They also require the creation of a nine-member charter commission, and none of them can be elected, appointed or employed by the city. It also requires several public hearings as well as a formal review from the Attorney General’s office.
Only Councilman Jackson voiced any plans to put those wheels into motion, noting that he plans to request guidance from the City Attorney’s office about how to initiate the process. Nobody else was aware of any ongoing or planned petition drives to trigger a voter referendum.
“I do want to explore this,” Jackson said. “I’m willing to work with anyone who does want to see the city charter amended. Ultimately, this could put more power into the hands of the people.”
The council-manager form of government was reportedly born in the early 20th century in response to corruption that plagued many cities, according to Michigan Municipal Executives. The idea was to “professionalize” local government by bringing in trained municipal managers, experienced CEOs who can bring their training and experience to day-to-day city operations.
It can also be much more difficult to corrupt a Council of eight people than one individual official.
Proponents have argued that city managers are more capable of separating politics from city operations because they need not worry about reelection campaigns and catering to special interests.
The formal hiring process can also attract a wider candidate pool and ensure that someone with financial acumen and municipal expertise is hired for the job. Mayoral elections rely on popular votes — which doesn’t always result in selecting the most qualified candidates to lead the city.
“I’ve long advocated for a city manager in Lansing,” said former Councilwoman Jody Washington. “I think it could bring more continuity to the city. Eliminating that election could also do away with a lot of the political foolishness that comes along with this strong mayor concept. A manager would broaden power to the entire Council, which is directly elected by the people.”
Washington said she has heard louder and louder conversations about a possible charter amendment, specifically after rumors about Bernero seeking a fourth term became reality.
“I think we’re all starting to see it’s time to explore a city manager for Lansing,” she added.
Councilman Jeremy Garza doesn’t have a stance on whether a strong mayor is good for Lansing, but he said he wants to hear more ideas from the public. He’s open to the conversation.
Council Vice President Adam Hussain said a city manager — at least in theory — is a “fantastic” concept for Lansing. But he also acknowledged drawbacks on both sides of the conversation.
“The problem emerges when you have an individual with a lot of power who does not have the requisite experience to make these big decisions for the city,” Hussain said. “I like the idea of having managerial consistency, but would we be able to attract someone to that position? A city manager would really need to be a very credible individual who is responsive to the Council.”
Detroit, Warren, Flint, Dearborn, Livonia and Westland all operate under the direction of an elected mayor as their top executive. East Lansing, Grand Rapids, Sterling Heights and Ann Arbor have city managers. They become more common in cities with smaller populations, where it could be more difficult to attract qualified elected talent into positions with such broad legislative authority.
All told, however, Michigan’s Constitution specifically prescribes the authority to the people — and their elected representatives — to decide which government works best for their city. If residents and Council members want a change in Lansing, it’s incumbent on them to seek it.
“It’s kind of a big machine to do it and these types of charter revisions don’t happen often, but it’s not impossible,” said Tom Forshee, an attorney for the Michigan Municipal League. “In Michigan, there’s a lot of value on the idea that cities can decide what works best for them.”
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