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.
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