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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning


"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

revamp the mayor's power?

Revamp the mayor's power?: Anit-Jennings politicos are looking to alter the power of the mayor as a way to curb Jennings power.
Political foes of Mayor Jerry Jennings are trying to use the ballot box this fall to clip the mayor's wings by proposing the first changes in the city's 6-year-old charter.

The measures could weaken the mayor by ending his day-to-day ability to spend money on raises and other pet issues, and to name commissioners and department heads without support from the 15-member Common Council.

The petitions, which will be circulated starting Tuesday, ask the Common Council under the state Municipal Home Rule Law to put up a ballot question on the charter that would:

Shift control of the little-known, but critical Board of Estimate and Apportionment from the mayor to the council. The board is responsible for shifting cash beyond approved budgeted amounts. Jennings currently appoints three of its five members, but would get just one appointment under the proposed change.

Require council approval of about 20 commissioners and department heads starting in January and again every four years as a mayoral administration takes office.

The call to shift power from the mayor to the council harks back to the contentious 20-month debate within a Jennings-appointed charter review commission before voters approved the new charter by a ratio 56 percent to 44 percent. Opponents claimed the new charter concentrated too much authority with the mayor.
This is an extremely important issue. Of course, I'm not really interested in whether or not it gets on the ballot. It should and I think it will. But that's not the real issue here. The real issue is the merit of the proposal and whether or not the changes are good for the city.

I'm actually teaching a course right now on executive power, and I was lecturing on this very topic this week. From a political science standpoint, there are at least three things worth mentioning in this debate about shifting power from the mayor to the council:

1) Weighing the value of a strong executive vs. the value of a powerful democratic legislature. Contrary to what you might here from either side in a debate like this, there are good reasons to have a strong executive and good reasons to have a powerful legislature. The American experience with England illustrates this perfectly: we rejected the King as a despotic executive in 1776, but after a decade long trial of radical legislative government, we rejected that in 1789 and installed a fairly strong presidency. What is the problem with legislative government? Generally, four major things hold it back: First, a diffusion of power, in which all decisions are generally compromises. This results in a lack of forceful and consistent leadership that can often be provided by an individual. Second, a diffusion of accountability. As soon as something goes wrong, everyone just points at each other and declares themselves blameless. Third, the lack of a general representative. In a legislature, no one represents the whole - the whole is simply the sum of district (or ward) representatives. Thus, no one actually has the greater good as their electoral incentive - they only have an incentive to help their ward. A unitary executive elected by the whole must pay attention, in theory, to the betterment of the whole. Finally, and perhaps most importantly (at least on the national level) is quickness of reaction time in crisis. No legislature can respond to crisis as fast as a singular executive can. And this is the main function of the executive, to take charge in a crisis. People tend to put their faith - for better or worse - in one person when the chips are on the line. All the other things bad about a legislature (diffusion of power, diffusion of accountability, lack of general representation) are maginified in a crisis, when you want clear, non-ambiguous leadership.

Now, all three of these problems were recognized by the Founders, who sought to install a presidency in the U.S. that could provide something of a solution to them - a unitary president represents the whole of the nation, can be held accountable for his action exclusively, and has the singularity of mind to produce non-ambiguous policy, which generally produces better leadership. However, everyone knows the problems of a too powerful executive. I'll give you three classic ones: first, a powerful executive is in many way antithetical to democratic governance. Singularity of mind - which is great for crisis leadership - can be deadly in day-to-day leadership in certain circumstances. Simply by creating "crisis as routine," executives can tend toward dictators. Second, the non-diffusion of power tends to create larger than life figures who can dominate public life and exert far too much control over society. The singular nature of the executive (be it mayor or president) is perfect for the TV age - no legislature has the speed or unity to oppose an executive in the sound byte age. Their control over the bureacracy of government services adds to this problem, as it provides them a patronage slush fund with which to grease their power. Finally, individuals are fallable, and executives don't have to evaluate their ideas as often as legislators. They have little need to see opposing viewpoints. Great in crisis and when leadership is needed. Not so great at other times.

The bottom line is that neither the executive or legislature should have total control of a situation. The best governance comes when both have some restrained power and must work together, along with the flexibility to have the executive deal with functions best left to its strength and the legislature involved in functions best suited to its strength.

2) Now, some may say this is a debate better suited to the president than the mayor. Actually, the opposite might be true. While presidents do have to handle foreign policy crises, in other spheres of life they are rarely "on the front lives of government." Mayors, on the other hand, are the quintessential day-to-day "front-line" governemnt agents. No legislature is every on the front lines - they simply write the laws. But the executives must enforce them and then deal with the associated problems. The president has a million people doing this for him and a million layers of intermediaries between him and the workers (i.e. he doesn't talk to the FBI agents personally). Not so with a mayor: mayors are generally right out there dealing with day-to-day city issues: snow removal problems, sidewalk cracks, crime, noise, robbery, etc. Even if hte mayor is not personally dealing with constituent complaints in his office, he is directly dealing with the police, fire, health, and other departments of the city. It is absolutely vital to the health of a city to have a good mayor who works hard, provides leadership, and solves problems.

3) The "short-term" problem in democratic politics - this is an issue of rules changes. When we want to change such a fundamental thing as the power relationship of the mayor and city council, it is rarely done in a political theory blue-print manner. Instead, it comes at the push and pull of electoral politics - just like it is this year. People are upset at the mayor, they want to weaken him if they can't remove him, so they propose changes to the underlying structure of the government. That's fine. But you should always keep it in mind and remember the long term consequences of the actions. Sure, Jennings may have too much power. But always try to think about how much power you want the mayor to have in 10 years, not how much power you want Jennings to have next January. .

So, where does that leave us? Well, I think the recommendations made by this ballot initiative are probably a good idea on the whole. While I am generally sympathetic to having a strong executive, these changes wouldn't undercut the mayor's ability to be a leader. In fact, they seem to provide only a mild check on some of his powers - the very powers that tend to lead to abuse - unchecked spending and unchecked appointment power.

What I don't want to see is the total emaciation of the mayor's office
. These things tend to come in avalanches, and I do think executive leadership is vital in a city like Albany. We should generally have a strong mayor. Hopefully, reason and even-handedness will be brought to this question. While the current proposals are fine, we need to be careful not to go to far. Mayors, like presidents (and unlike legislatures), are the source of leadership. We can't forget that. Often, a better bet is to change the personnel rather than weaken the office. I'd much rather see these people focus on bringing in a great mayor than trying to reduce the power of the mayor, whoever he is.

As Bolingbroke said in 18th century England, "don't fetter the executive, just get the right man in the office." Or something like that.

If you'd like to read more about this, i'm sure that Democracy in Albany will be covering it non-stop. It's right up in DIA's wheelhouse, who, BTW, has a new site that looks great.
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