A video clip featuring San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders is a popular feature on the local mayorproject.org website, despite virtually no one in Colorado Springs knowing who he is.
Sanders took office in 2005, shortly after San Diego voters decided to test-drive a strong-mayor system of government. And the folks behind the Mayor Project's Question 300, a ballot issue that would give Colorado Springs a strong mayor, see Sanders as a shining example of what could come to pass here. And Sanders is rather convincing.
"By 2004, San Diego city government was besieged with numerous challenges," Sanders says on the video. "They were gaining negative attention nationwide. ... These challenges were a direct result of deals cut in a nontransparent manner by unelected and unaccountable city managers."
Sanders says he came into this hot mess and set things straight, eliminating more than 1,400 positions, cutting salaries, negotiating permanent changes to pensions, completing six years of backlogged audits, restoring San Diego's credit rating, and enabling the city to return to the municipal bond market.
"None of these successes," Sanders says with an air of authority, "would have been possible without the executive tools provided to me by the strong-mayor system of government."
This year, voters made San Diego's strong mayor permanent. But not everyone is bullish on the system. Both strong-mayor (or council-mayor) and council-manager forms of government are popular across the country, and both have their problems. For every Sanders savior, there's a corrupt Mayor Richard Daley.
Then again, for every Chicago, there's a Bell, Calif., ruled by a greedy council and manager.
And while San Diego found salvation in a strong mayor, El Paso, Texas, recently ran the other way, ditching a council-mayor system for council-manager. According to El Paso's website, the council-manager is "adaptable to local conditions and preferences, and costs to local government are frequently reduced with competent management."
So the choice isn't clear-cut.
The central question Issue 300 poses: Who gets the power if strong mayor passes? The people or a politician?
Asked if he's worried that one day the city will elect a rotten "strong mayor," former state Sen. Andy McElhany laughs.
"At some point in our future," McElhany says, "we will have a bad mayor. Just as, if we stay with the current system, we will have another bad city manager.... A bad person can do less damage in a split-power system than a city manager can do in the current system."
McElhany, one of the spokespersons for the campaign, certainly isn't alone in his opinion. While the strong-mayor campaign has received the majority of its $518,000-plus in contributions as loans from developers Chris and David Jenkins, the measure has brought together an impressively diverse coalition that ranges from progressives like Mary Lou Makepeace and Richard Skorman, to conservatives like Bentley Rayburn, to a who's-who of the pro-business crowd down to contract-out-all-services proponent Paul Kleinschmidt.
Whatever the Mayor Project is doing seems to be working. A recent Independent/Luce Research poll found 54.7 percent of likely voters supporting it, 32.9 percent opposed, and 11.6 percent unsure. The findings are similar to polls by the Mayor Project in August and September.
McElhany says he believes the strong-mayor system would increase accountability by making city employees report to an elected official. He also thinks a full-time, better-paid mayoral position would attract better candidates.
Right now, he says, decisions are made by an appointed city manager or a group of "nine volunteers" (City Councilors) who hinder progress.
McElhany says there are reasonable checks on a mayor's powers (see the capsule on the right), adding that the mayor would have no veto power in approval of land-use issues, meaning he couldn't directly help a developer friend. And Council would approve most mayoral appointees, which isn't done under the current system.
"If the city manager wants to hire his brother-in-law, [he] may get a lot of criticism," he says, "but short of firing the city manager, there's nothing Council can do about it."
Meanwhile, former city manager Lorne Kramer will tell you that Issue 300 fixes something that isn't broken. Don't like the city leadership? Elect new leaders. Don't think the candidates are good enough? Pay them better. None of that requires something as radical as changing a huge chunk of the city charter, Kramer insists.
"Someone gets elected by successfully navigating the election process," Kramer says. "...There's no pre-election test for leadership, and there certainly is no pre-election test for ethics."
Among those who have come out vocally against Question 300 are Kramer, Councilors Jan Martin and Scott Hente, Mayor Lionel Rivera and the League of Women Voters of the Pikes Peak Region.
One major problem many see with a strong mayor is the possibility of corruption. A strong mayor could unilaterally fire a police chief for not following instructions, or dump the head of the Planning Department for refusing to help a developer. In fact, a strong mayor could fire every department head. Or use his influence to sway Council to side with special interests.
The League of Women Voters has another concern: "This proposal would not require the mayor to attend city council meetings. Who would be there to answer questions from council and provide information about city business?"
Several opponents have also pointed to the fact that a mayor would be expected to hire a high-paid chief of staff. In other cities, the mayor and council also have separate secretaries and financial personnel — all of which could add to the price tag of the system.
Opponents agree the strong mayor will have its share of unintended consequences.
"I think," Kramer says, "that it's pretty naive to think this one individual is going to come in and change the mentality."
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