It is high time San Jose joined the big leagues and moved to a strong mayor form of government. The recent response by City Manager Debra Figone to Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio’s public suggestion on who should be the next police chief is simply another example of the bush-league government system that regulates elected officials to second-class status.
If this were New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Los Angeles, such a rebuke from the hired help would have never occurred. Moreover, it is the duty and the right of elected officials to opine on weighty matters such as who should serve in our city.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Councilman Oliverio’s opinion on the matter, a stinging public reprimand from an appointed public employee at an elected official is out of line.
Nobody voted for the city manager and she is supposed to work for him and the council—not the other way around. If a councilmember wants to give their opinion, a subordinate should not be publically chastising them. Moreover, it should be taken into consideration, not dismissed as interfering with the process.
But the larger issue is that San Jose suffers from its governance. If San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee or Oakland Mayor Jean Quan talk to officials in Sacramento, Washington or a business that wants to relocate, they can make the deal. They have authority. Mayor Reed can only opine. Under the arcane city manager form of government, Reed has to defer to an unelected appointee who has the actual authority to make things happen.
In nearly every other large city in the nation, it is the mayor and not the bureaucrats who run the public business. This makes the most powerful public official in those cities directly accountable to the people. It also gives these cities a huge advantage, because they can make decisions in real time.
The difference in clout is enormous. When Ed Lee calls MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, do you think his calls are returned? We know Mayor Reed’s calls are not. Can anyone imagine the political fall-out if Selig failed to call back Michael Bloomberg or Rahm Emanuel? Because of their influence, they could have a profound effect on those who regulates baseball. These mayors are not to be trifled with and real power can be exerted on behalf of those they represent.
The arguments against a strong mayor don’t have merit. Some people don’t like this mayor or that mayor. So what? That’s who we elect. They are the face of the city, they get the credit or the blame for anything that happens anyway. The majority of voters don’t even know the current city manager’s name, let alone what she looks like, what her policy agenda is or how she implements it.
But when something goes wrong, everyone blames the mayor and council. When something happens, constituents call Mayor Reed, not Deb Figone. The mayor shouldn’t have to put them on hold and plead with an unelected bureaucrat to get something done. He should be able to authorize it on the spot.
Some say a city manager is more “professional.” Well, that works in Morgan Hill, but big cities need someone who can speak for them and provide the leadership and clout that causes Sacramento, Washington D.C. and especially businesses to take them seriously.
In the 1980s, Mayor Tom McEnery increased the clout of the mayor’s office, in what many considered a transitional phase to a strong-mayor form of government. Thirty years later, it is past time to complete the transition and put the people’s representative fully in charge.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.