Columns » Warwick Sabin

Our minor mayor

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With Jim Dailey’s announcement last week that he will not seek another term as Little Rock’s mayor, it is about time we openly discuss the absurdity of his job.

It’s a part-time position invested with none of the executive powers that are traditionally part of what it means to be a “mayor.” Dailey gets a vote when matters come before the 10-member city board of directors, and he chairs the board meetings, but he is not really running things.

That’s because Little Rock has a form of government that puts day-to-day control of the city in the hands of a city manager. Conceived as a way of preventing quid pro quo municipal corruption, the system resembles a corporation, with a professional bureaucrat acting as CEO and reporting to a board of directors.

In theory, it’s not a bad concept. Since the city manager doesn’t owe his or her election to anyone, he or she can make objective administrative decisions (as opposed to rewarding lucrative contracts to political allies, for example).

But adapting business models to government is always problematic, because businesses aren’t democratic. Democracy may not always be efficient, but it ensures accountability. In Little Rock’s form of government, the person with the most power is not directly answerable to the voters. That is inherently undemocratic.

To understand that better, just imagine if we had similar arrangements at other levels of government. What if the national chief executive was a manager hired by Congress? Even better, we could allow our part-time state legislature to name someone to oversee the functions of Arkansas government. That would certainly keep corruption at bay.

As undemocratic as Little Rock’s system is, having a high-profile, mostly ceremonial mayor actually makes things worse, because it hides the problem. The mayor has to campaign throughout the city and win votes from the entire electorate, and the voters believe they have elected someone who can respond to their needs. In reality, they merely installed the 11th member of the city board, while the person best equipped to solve their problems never came around to ask for their vote. The whole process is misleading, to say the least.

To make it honest, we need to do one of two things. We can scrap the essentially meaningless mayor’s seat and make it clear that executive authority rests exclusively with an unelected manager who reports to the city board.

Or we can make the elected mayor the chief executive of Little Rock.

I prefer the second option, because it is simple, transparent and logical.

Think about it purely in terms of accountability, which is perhaps the biggest benefit of representative democracy. If you’re unhappy with how city government is being run, right now you cannot directly influence who is running it. You can complain to the city director who represents your ward, but that person is only one vote out of 11.

And while the city manager has to keep the city directors happy, that often entails something very different from keeping the average citizen happy. (Maybe the city manager took care of one of your director’s pet projects, so the director is less inclined to hold the manager accountable for your grievance.)

An elected mayor, on the other hand, has a natural incentive to respond to everyone. There’s always the danger of corruption or power consolidation with a strong executive, but that danger exists in our state and federal levels of government. In return we are able to directly elect a leader who can get things done, and we can vote that person out when we are dissatisfied with his or her performance.

Furthermore, a truly empowered mayor can bring the city together in a way no one else can. Right now the city is divided among so many constituencies, with rivalries between downtown and outlying areas, wealthier and poorer neighborhoods, and corporate and civic interests. With the city board the only directly elected branch of government, it’s no coincidence that those fissures are perfectly replicated there, since each member is obligated to stand up for his or her particular constituency.

Only a mayor would need to find a way to bridge differences and broadly appeal across constituencies to assemble a coalition large enough to win election. With the added ability to actually enact an agenda and the motivation to remain in office, that mayor could make real strides toward compromise and cooperation.

Any debate about Little Rock’s form of government is admittedly complicated by the fact that the current city manager, Bruce Moore, is unusually competent, effective and fair.

But any system benefits from excellent leadership. This city deserves a structure that can withstand a bad regime, which means enshrining democracy and accountability before everything else.

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