Mayor vs. city manager among issues a Charter Commission may debate


How can Lansing’s city government best serve the people?

That question has been floated, discussed and debated ever since the city was incorporated in 1859, but with 51.6% of voters approving a Charter Commission last November, it may be more compelling now than ever. 

The nine-member commission, whom voters will elect on May 7 from 36 candidates, could opt to shift powers away from a strong, elected mayor system in favor of a professional city manager who could be hired and fired at the discretion of the City Council. It could also rewrite the composition of the City Council itself by creating more wards, eliminating some or all of the city’s four at-large seats, or both.

“The charter is a big deal,” said Chris Johnson of the Michigan Municipal League. “It kind of goes back to a constitutional convention, just at the city level.”

Throughout his career, including 28 years as the mayor of Northville, Johnson has seen the city manager system take off. According to the League’s most recent data, 212 of 281 state municipalities have some version of the city manager form.

That system started in the 1890s “as a kind of reform to government,” Johnson said. In it, the City Council selects a member as mayor who leads the Council, which hires a city manager and delegates responsibility to that person for operating the city. East Lansing is an example.

“The idea is to get professionals professionals who know about finance, sewer systems, water systems, etc. They’re supposed to be experts who know something about city government instead of the person who got the most votes in the last election,” Johnson said.

In Lansing’s current format, voters elect the mayor to run the executive branch, appoint department heads and a few other posts, subject to Council approval, and maintain veto powers.

“The advantage of council-manager is that it diffuses power. It’s intended to be more managerial and technical,” said Liz Gerber, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan. She has researched “how arrangements like the council-manager and strong-mayor forms of government affect public policies.”

She said she doesn’t know of any instances in Michigan where a municipality has given up its strong-mayor format, as some in Lansing have suggested.

“I would imagine that in a place like Lansing, the idea is: ‘We don’t need the politics so much right now.’ They may feel they need somebody who knows how to drive the ship, how to balance the budget and how to write grants to qualify for funding. And those are all technical skills,” Gerber said.

There are also some downsides to removing mayoral powers, she said.

“When the city is entering into negotiations like with the state or with the private sector over a new manufacturing plant or something, that’s when you might want to have a mayor who can speak for the city more directly,” Gerber said.

The distinction isn’t always as clear-cut, however.

“In Ann Arbor, even though we have a city-manager form, it’s more of a hybrid because the mayor has some powers that a strong mayor would have. He’ll make appointments, for example, and I think he also proposes the budget, which is another important power," Gerber said.

Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, cites the city-manager form as “probably a best practice that even major cities outside of Michigan have adopted.”

He added that a change of that magnitude in Lansing would be a significant undertaking, which is why it’s rarely done.

“All cities with strong mayors have tended to stick with a strong mayor, but you can do that and still provide more checks and balances,” he said.

Lansing’s commission could very well rewrite only some mayoral powers. It could revise how appointments are made and approved, for example. It could also look at removing key powers like the veto, which Gerber said “is at the very, very top of the strongest powers for a mayor.”

“Nothing can get through if they don’t approve, and, of course, that’s a serious power,” she added, although the Council can override a veto with enough votes.

The second most prominent talking point behind the charter revision process in Lansing involves how residents are represented on the Council. Under Lansing’s active charter, written in 1978, the City Council comprises representatives of four wards plus four more members elected citywide.

Some have suggested replacing the at-large seats with more wards, citing the spending required to win citywide. Others, including Council Vice President Adam Hussein, have mentioned expanding the Council to nine seats to discourage deadlock.

Lupher said having an even number of seats might need to be updated.

“About 60 years ago, there was this idea that having an even number of members on a city council or commission would force people to come together and work through issues,” Lupher said.

“In retrospect, we might say that was sort of a pollyannish perspective,” he added. “We’ve become more and more partisan and divided. So, for the most part, we’ve given up on the idea that we can build an even number of seats and get good results from that.”

Gerber also said that at-large seats “tend to dilute the minority vote.”

But, she said, “The disadvantage to that is you get more colloquial. It could be harder to speak for the city’s interests as a whole, especially if you’re moving away from a mayor simultaneously.”

Dearborn’s commission looked last year at establishing nine wards after the city authorized a review in 2021. The commission voted 5-4 against when they submitted their draft to the state in October.

Commission Chair Hassan Abdallah offered some advice to Lansing’s incoming commission members.

“I would challenge them to make the extra effort to ensure they are reviewing a methodology that is publicly accessible and welcomes the engagement of the community,” Abdallah said.

Lupher agreed, adding that the voters could reject any changes when all is said and done.

“You rarely see a revised city charter changing anything in major ways because anything that seems like radical change becomes threatening and harder to sell,” he said

Lansing, Charter, Revision, Commission, Eric Lupher, Chris Johnson, Hassan Abdallah, Dearborn, East Lansing, Adam Hussein, Liz Gerber, candidates, election, politics, municipality, Michigan Municipal League, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Citizens Research Council of Michigan, Ann Arbor


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