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Comin' on strong 

Come November, Colorado Springs voters likely will decide who should run the city: a popularly elected mayor or a professional city manager.

Colorado Springs has long operated under a "weak mayor" system, with a city manager running the city's daily operations. Proponents of a "strong-mayor" system say the status quo has left the Springs with no true leader — leading to economic degradation and a lack of accountability. The group behind the "strong-mayor" measure, Citizens for Accountable Leadership, is confident it has enough signatures to put the question on the November ballot. It plans to turn in petitions Aug. 3.

If a strong-mayor measure passes, the Springs city government will mirror the national system, with three equal branches of government and the mayor serving as the executive (akin to the president). Most large cities have a strong-mayor system.

Of course, just because a lot of cities have the system, doesn't mean they all like it.

Some certainly do. In 2004, voters in San Diego agreed to try a strong-mayor system for five years. This summer, facing the choice of keeping it or reverting to the city manager form of government, San Diegans overwhelmingly voted to stick with the strong-mayor system.

On the other hand, Tulsa, Okla., adopted a strong-mayor form of government two decades ago. Now, the mayor and City Council are at each other's throats. The city of 380,000 people has faced dire budget cuts. And many Councilors are casting a jealous eye toward Oklahoma City, which, under a city manager system, has endured the recession with relative ease.

Mary Ellen McNally, a former City Councilor and one of the Springs' strong-mayor proponents, says she isn't shaken by Tulsa's tale. There are good reasons she believes a strong mayor is the right choice for this city.

"All I have to do is look to Denver and what John Hickenlooper has done," she says, referring to the Denver mayor and gubernatorial candidate's success at redeveloping the city to the north. "I believe [a strong mayor] works, and it could work for us. Because what we have now is obviously not working."

Switching over

In the late 1980s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave Tulsa an ultimatum: Change or be changed.

The threat was real. Courts across the country were deeming governments like Tulsa's — comprised of all "at-large" representatives — unconstitutional because they made it nearly impossible for minority candidates to get elected. Tulsa's government at the time consisted of a popularly elected mayor and commissioners with specific expertise (i.e. water commissioner, police commissioner, etc.). The city needed districts — smaller areas that would elect their own representatives to city council.

At the time, many Tulsans feared a court would decide their kind of government for them. So in 1989, voters changed the system themselves, opting for a strong mayor and a city council made up of district representatives.

Rodger Randle, mayor at the time, served two years under the old system and two under the new system. Now a professor at the University of Oklahoma, he remembers the transition fondly.

"Under the new form, I was the new strong mayor, so I was king," he says, laughing. "I thought it was great."

Randle has observed city government closely over the years. And the man who once kept a plaque in his office that read, "The Lord so loved the world that he did not send a committee," continues to believe a strong mayor is the way to go.

"A committee can't provide leadership," he says. "It can't happen; it doesn't happen."

However, Randle says Tulsa's strong-mayor system has been short of perfect.

"There are two problems: One is this difficulty of developing a good working relationship between mayors and the City Council. That has proved much, much more challenging for Tulsa than I anticipated. ... The other is, we live in a country where we believe in democracy, but we can't bear to watch it happen. "

Going for the jugular

Rest assured, democracy — and the knock-down, drag-out debate that often accompanies it — is alive and well in Tulsa.

Tulsa's current mayor, Republican oilman Dewey Bartlett Jr., has been in office less than a year and has already alienated City Council — which, interestingly, is also dominated by Republicans.

Councilor Bill Christiansen, who's served nine years, says Bartlett's biggest problem is an unwillingness to compromise. Councilor Jack Henderson, who worked with the NAACP at the time Tulsa switched to strong-mayor, agrees the mayor has a "my way or the highway" attitude. But Henderson thinks the mayor's biggest problems are inexperience, a lack of political savvy and a cabinet that doesn't compensate for his weaknesses.

"You can't run a city without a team," he says.

Both Councilors agree that Bartlett — who did not return a request for comment — came into office at a bad time. Budget cuts in Tulsa have led to issues that'll sound familiar to Springs residents: darkened streetlights, dry parks, even laid-off police officers.

"There was never a honeymoon," Henderson remarks, "from day one."

Henderson says the Bartlett situation has lent sudden urgency to an idea that's been kicked around for years: asking voters to approve a city manager-run form of government (like the Springs has). Tulsa's Council will soon consider whether to ask voters in November to make the switch.

Henderson prefers a city manager, trained and professional, as opposed to a mayor who must learn "on the job." Christiansen does, too.

"The person who has name recognition, and has the most money, wins the election," he says. "In a lot of cases, that person doesn't have the knowledge or experience or education to run a city as the mayor, and so therefore you end up with all the department heads sort of running the show."

Greener grass

Tulsa's leaders talk a lot about Oklahoma City.

The larger city, with 537,000 residents, has run smoothly and relatively peacefully under its city manager system, and has seen relatively few cutbacks. Heck, Oklahoma City is still investing in infrastructure.

Bryan Dean, a native and city reporter at The Oklahoman, says the city was in an economic black hole in the late 1980s, during the oil bust. He says the city recovered partially because of mayors and other politicians who cooperated with business organizations and each other to make city life better.

While not technically "strong," Oklahoma City's mayors have been anything but weak, he says. They've been the face of the city — and they've been able to get a series of 1-cent dedicated sales taxes approved by voters that have rebuilt downtown, brought in a "beautiful" ballpark and fixed up schools.

"The mayors here have spent a lot of their own political capital on putting themselves in front of these issues," Dean says.

As in the Springs, the mayor has no more power than a Councilor, and they all receive little pay (though the Okies still pay councilors about twice the Springs' $6,250 pittance). The difference, Dean suggests, might be voters' attitude toward government. Oklahoma City residents have watched their tax dollars at work, taking pride in the improvements — and because of that, Dean says, "they [are] kind of willing to give the benefit of the doubt."

stanley@csindy.com

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