Changing ‘strong mayor’ might be good for cities, but needs public buy-in

Efforts are underway in Camas and Washougal to determine if the cities’ current “strong mayor” form of government is the best path to follow.

On one side is the mayor-council government, or the “strong mayor” system now in place in both cities. This traditional system of local government was meant to provide a set of checks and balances with an executive branch, the elected mayor, who acts as a chief executive officer, directing the city operations and appointing/removing department leaders; and the elected city council members, who make up the legislative branch.

Although it has its benefits, including the fact that strong mayors are more beholden to voters and to the public and therefore — in theory — must be more transparent, the strong-mayor system also lends itself to abuses of power.

Opponents of this form of government argue that “strong mayors” have too much control over the city and could use their office to further their own political agendas, resisting feedback from council members, vetoing council decisions, and even trying to control the flow of information by keeping reports and daily operational practices from the council. Additionally, many mayors are great politicians, but not so skilled at managing hundreds of employees or overseeing a multi-million-dollar budget made up of public funds.

The alternative now being explored by two committees in Camas and Washougal would pull power from one person, the “strong mayor,” and spread more power throughout the elected city council. Under this form of government, an elected mayor would still be available to sit on the council and promote the city’s interests throughout the region, but would not be in control of the day-to-day operations or have veto powers. Instead, the council would hire a professional city manager to oversee the city’s departments.

Proponents of this “council-manager” system say it prevents abuses of power by removing politics from city business. If a city manager gets too power-hungry, councilors can simply replace them instead of waiting for voters to “fire” them in the next mayoral election.

It is, of course, too soon to swing one way or another on this issue. But, we are looking forward to hearing what comes out of the committees in Camas and Washougal. Both committees are stocked with thoughtful, experienced people who will likely give the issue much deliberation before making any recommendations to their respective city councils.

If the city councils do decide to ask voters to approve a council-manager system, we hope there will be a coordinated effort to help educate voters on the pros and cons of each form of government.

We already have a voter-turnout problem in Camas-Washougal when it comes to local mayoral and city council elections — Washougal’s former mayor Sean Guard, for example, only captured 18 percent of registered voters in November of 2013, when he won his second term. In some U.S. cities, voter turnout for mayoral elections has dropped below 5 percent.

Low voter turnout is especially troubling when governments have the strong-mayor system in place and have centralized power with one person — who may have only garnered support from a very tiny minority of city residents. Even with the check of the elected city council, which represents a more diverse slice of voters, the “strong mayor” can decide to veto legislation they don’t like. We recently saw this in action in Washougal, when the city’s mayor (Guard) penned a surprise veto on the much-discussed fireworks ban after the council had already adjourned for the night.

We will do our part to help connect the dots for our readers — and to help educate the public on what these changes might mean to their daily lives and to the future of their cities. But, as we know, many members of the public no longer trust the facts they read in their newspapers. They are confused as to what separates an opinion piece from an article — and more than likely to shout “fake news!” (which has become the new “she’s a witch!”) when they disagree with the facts being reported or the opinions being offered.

Therefore, it will take much more than this local newspaper to help communicate the importance of possibly changing local forms of government. We look forward to hearing ideas for engaging the public from the communicators, politicians and educators on the Camas and Washougal exploratory committees.