Saturday, July 25, 2009

We Shall Overcome Some Day

Madison has evolved into a "strong mayor - weak Council" model. Therefore, when Paul Soglin states that "Madison, like most Wisconsin cities has a weak mayor, strong council form of government," I take into account that he is a former mayor who experienced most of public life as the "chief executive."

The deliberate as well as unconscious bias for strong, executive leadership is part of our culture. In my years of executive coaching and organization development, I haven't come across a single executive who started off by saying "I have too much power, I want less, please help." Rather I see executives struggle with their desire to enhance their powers and use them more effectively. After all, we look towards such executives for charismatic, visionary leadership to get the job done. It doesn't come natural to us to share or give up power.

That is why leadership structures in public life, unlike in most corporate settings, place so much deliberate emphasis on checks and balances and separation of power.

Let's look at a some facts. The 2003 adopted budgets for the Council office was $82,767 and for the mayor's office $619,804. Since these numbers don't include the salaries of alders, let's take the mayor's $102,631 annual salary for 2003 out of the equation to compare the two budgets more accurately. Now we are talking about $82,767 for the Council office compared to $517,173 for the mayor's office.

By 2009, the adopted budget for the Council office increased to $97,439 and the mayor's office to $802,708 (with his salary it was $915,589). Percentage wise this is a 15% increase for the Council and a 35.5% increase in the mayor's office. During the same time the mayor's staff grew from 10 to 12 positions whereas the Council staff remained at two serving 20 alders. Incidentally, the salaries for all 20 alders combined were $138,433 in 2003 and $145,950 in 2009, representing a 5.15% increase.

Another fact is that the mayor hires and supervises all department heads. He or she has the authority to direct staff to implement policies and conduct research. Alders neither have such authority nor access to research. For the most part we rely on our own resources, labor, and wits. Alders may ask for information from staff, and depending on their personal relationships and longevity in office, do receive assistance from staff and the mayor's office. But for insiders it's common knowledge that a mayor can quietly block or delay such requests. It's not unheard of that mayors have had standing orders to stall informational requests from alders. Thus the only formal, legal requests that alders have at their disposal is to pass a resolution to initiate staff reports or use FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests like any citizen would.

To be fair, Council staff do assist alders with their legislative duties. But when you do the math (two full-time staff equals 80 hours of staff time per week divided by twenty alders) each alder receives about 4 hours of staff support per week at best.

The mayor also develops the operating and capital budgets with prior input from department heads, boards, and alders of his or her choosing. There is no legal obligation to involve Council until it reaches the Board of Estimates and the full Council. By then many decisions are foregone conclusions.

Put all this all together and what do you see? A strong-mayor governance model! So you might say "what's wrong with this?" Well, for starters, there is a growing body of research identifying "legislative leadership" (diffused, shared, collaborative, etc.) as being more apt to handle complexity. Another reason is that a "strong-mayor" model creates a dependency on one individual thus amplifying his or her strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, perhaps it is time for the Council to become a stronger partner by assuming, for example, the authority to appoint alders to city committees.

Paul Soglin is right when he concludes that the "strutural components of governemnt are inter-related. When changing one, the others need examinaztion [sic]." The Council appointing alders to city committees is just one of many changes that should be evaluated. In a previous blog entry I mentioned that hiring a City Administrator is another structural improvement. I also advocate for Council leadership to exercise its newly adopted authority to set-up Council committees where alders serve as peers. Such a venue allows alders to collaboratively shape City policy. It is also an opportunity for alders to develop relationships (the social fabric) that overcome or mitigate ideological divides.

Finally, Council participation in appointing citizens to city committees needs to be reconsidered as well. For example, the Council and the mayor could have equal number of citizen appointments on each city committee. Or, as a transitional solution, the mayor retains the right to appoint citizens during the first ninety days of a vacancy but relinquishes such authority to the Council should no appointment occur during that time window. I am sure there are more iterations.

The point is that with greater authority comes greater responsibility and accountability. The Council, as a group of twenty individuals, would begin to develop a stronger identity. I suppose the Council, like all of us, needs to learn how to fish rather than wait for the daily catch (or bait) from the mayor's office.

Bottom line - alders are in direct, daily contact with constituencies. Why not give Madisonians greater influence over policy making by creating a stronger legislative body? Why not create the organizational conditions for a Council to become more effective? And why not create a stronger check and balance between the branches to allow for more rigorous debate? Isn't this the spirit of a progressive democracy?