Council-Manager Form of Government Not Undemocratic

On June 19th Douglas Newby’s opinion piece titled, “Democracy Needs to Replace City Manager Ward System” was published with the assertion that the council-manager form of government (under which the City of Dallas, Texas is currently formed), is undemocratic. As the CEO of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), the former City Manager of Austin, Texas, and a city administrator who served under a strong mayor system like the one proposed by Mr. Newby, I’d like to address a couple of critical points and bring clarity to the ways in which the forms of government actually operate.

First, I’d like to address the idea that the council-manager form of government is somehow less democratic than the strong mayor system recommended by Mr. Newby. Understand that neither system is a pure democracy. That is, neither system allows residents to have a direct vote on all matters before the government. Certainly, there are certain issues that require a voter referendum, but most policy decisions are made through a representative democracy where the residents elect individuals to speak and act on their behalf.

The primary argument given to support the claim that the council-manager form is less democratic is that the City Manager is not elected by the people and therefore is not accountable to the people. However, the City Manager is appointed by the people’s representatives to Council and can be fired by the people through their elected representatives. Mr. Newby’s frustration seems to be that the mayor was not permitted to unilaterally fire the City Manager. And herein is the critical distinction that makes the council-manager form more democratic than the strong mayor system. Specifically, the council-manager form of government requires all elected officials (who represent the actual voices of the people) to work together, collaborate, and come to consensus on the best path forward for the city. No single official, not even the mayor, may act unilaterally against the will of the people – a will that can only be formulated through the collective voice of the people’s duly elected representatives.

The second issue I’d like to address is Mr. Newby’s argument for a strong mayor system, which is predicated, largely, upon a mischaracterization of the role of the City Manager and Council. First, is the claim that “each district is controlled by its City Councilperson and the City Manager.” The reality is that no policy may be advanced without the majority consent of the Council. Certainly, the council member in whose district a particular zoning decision is based will be given some deference considering that council member was elected by the people in the district who are most directly affected by the decision. However, that council member must convince a majority of the council to affirm their position. This is the case in both council-manager and strong mayor systems. However, in a council-manager system, the mayor has no authority to unilaterally veto council decisions or deny the will of the people. That power is, however, granted to the mayor in a strong mayor system.

The final issue is the claim that the City Manager controls the City Council. The ICMA Code of Ethics explicitly prohibits city managers from engaging in political activities or elections. While elected Council members and mayors rely on support from like-minded organizations and residents to support their campaign, these are areas of influence where the City Manager should not engage. Instead, the City Manager is a public servant employed by the people’s elected representatives. City Managers only hold their position if the democratically elected representatives of the people agree that the manager is running the city and implementing their policies effectively. Contrary to Mr. Newby’s assertion, the City Manager has no power to “defiantly refuse to pursue the priorities of the mayor and the City Council.” And recent actions taken by the Dallas City Council and the Mayor demonstrate this very issue.

The Mayor and members of City Council raised concerns regarding specific process improvements they’d like to see implemented by the City Manager. Yet, they also recognize the progress made to advance many of their goals and policies. And so, through a professional performance evaluation process, the Mayor and City Council clarified specific process improvements they’d like to see in the city. The City Manager now must deliver on those improvements. This is how any effective organization is managed. The governing body establishes policies and sets expectations for the organization, and their employee (in this case the City Manager) is held accountable for achieving those goals and expectations. In well-run cities, elected officials, the city manager, and staff all work collaboratively to strengthen the city. Yet, Mr. Newby’s solution is to advocate for a strong mayor system in the hopes that a like-minded mayor will be elected in order to “do more to push [his] ideas further forward.”

At ICMA, we recognize that local governments are essential to meeting the needs of the people. Public servants in local government deliver programs and services to assure public safety, provide public amenities, build essential infrastructure, and deliver quality public utilities. They do this to enhance the quality of life for all people and businesses within their jurisdiction.

Certainly, there will be disagreements on how best to move forward. That is why strong democracies encourage robust debate and public engagement. The ability to cast a ballot to be heard is an important aspect of democratic societies. Yet, the real power of democracy is only realized when we value diverse views and opinions in making decisions that affect our communities. In the council-manager form of government that includes granting the Council the power to hire and fire a manager based on their proven ability to carry out their vision of the future and assuring all the people’s representatives have an equal voice in determining how government serves the people.

Marc Ott is CEO/Executive Director of the International City/County Management Association.