You have your strong mayors and you have your strong mayors.
In Little Rock Monday, Mayor Mark Stodola led a news conference to announce three blocks of a street had been renamed (Commerce to River Market Avenue; it won't change your life much). Then he scuttled away quickly from the news conference. No need for more embarrassing talk about his car — stolen in this very neighborhood Friday night. The mayor, following practice, had left his keys in the vehicle.
Over in North Little Rock, Mayor Pat Hays was continuing his high-pressure campaign to get the North Little Rock School Board to fold its lawsuit over an improvement district he formed at the midnight hour in 2008 so he could steal school property tax from a big apartment project to finance a hotel parking garage. I don't like his idea much, but you can't say Hays lacks for aggressiveness.
I've been down this path before.
Love or hate his decisions, Hays is the directly elected chief of a city where aldermen are elected democratically, by wards. He schemes, he maneuvers, he builds alliances and he gets many things done (some inadvisable). He's been helped by some high-wealth investors who conveniently share his vision (or he theirs?) for reviving the city's historic core.
Stodola is in his first term as the city's "strong mayor," one half of the two-headed stepchild we created that combines a city manager government with a mayor with some executive power. A part of the city board is still elected at large, to ensure that the same old power brokers still have final say over city government. The suits do love to when their status is quo.
Stodola needs six votes to pass anything and there's been the devil in his first term of doing much exciting. He can fairly claim money is short, but it's not nearly as short as it is in North Little Rock, where Hays' sometimes improvident spending, the decline of profits from the city electric company and a precipitous drop in sales tax revenue have truly created a financial problem.
Sure, Stodola is going to do something about parking cars in yards. And he really thinks there should be an advisory policy against smoking in the Zoo. But "thank you for not smoking" does not strong mayoral results make.
Between Stodola and City Manager Bruce Moore, taxpayers are spending $350,000-plus in pay, fringes and expenses. I think the average citizen would be hard-pressed to say what he's getting for this. There's the decaying former baseball park. There's the continued subsidy of the anti-labor, anti-health care Chamber of Commerce by a city that is laying off vital workers and falling short in everything from solid code enforcement to neighborhood renewal.
Stodola can cobble up all kinds of figures about crime fighting, his own little car theft notwithstanding. But can he cobble up a bold and aggressive vision of what Little Rock is or should be? And what has our investment in his heightened power delivered?
The questions are timely. Stodola will be on the ballot this year and a challenger may pose these questions. As in years past, some people are considering making a race against him in the fall. The suits' money likely will discourage many of them.
I hope there's a credible challenge. Stodola is a pleasant person with good instincts, even if he is not yet the "strong mayor" voters somewhat unrealistically envisioned, given structural limits. A challenge, however, could make him stronger. More like, yes, Pat Hays.