The mayoral candidates in next month’s primary elections ought to be discussing the political lessons to be learned from former mayor Patrick Cannon’s conviction for corruption. So far the two Republican candidates express the hope that it will help their campaign and embarrassed Democrats don’t talk much about it.
Cannon’s conviction should be framed as much more than one individual’s lack of integrity. The question that begs to be asked is whether Cannon’s crime is a consequence of how Charlotte governs itself as well as personal greed.
Charlotte has outgrown the weak mayor-city manager form of government that suited the growing town of 30 years ago. But we continue to have a part-time mayor, who does not function as the chief executive officer. Instead, Charlotte has a city manager, who serves at the pleasure of a shifting majority of the City Council. The mayor, who chairs the City Council, votes to break ties and represents the city at various functions.
Most large cities have a “strong mayor” who is the CEO. Running a city is a fulltime job that merits a professional salary. As city CEO the mayor is responsible for appointing top administrators under him and he answers for all failures. A chief administrative officer (perhaps still called “city manager”) is often hired to report to the mayor. Such an official, who has a master’s in public administration or other professional credential, functions as the chief operating officer.
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Charlotte’s mayor already has two of the attributes found in strong mayoral systems: popular election by all the city’s voters and the power to veto City Council legislation. Many weak mayor-city manager systems function like the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners with the presiding officer selected by the members of each new council. Such indirect election produces even weaker commission chairs or mayors.
Mayoral responsibilities in Charlotte have been more than a part-time undertaking for years. It is easy to manage the necessary time and travel if one owns a successful department store chain or works for an international energy company that wants good government in its headquarters city. Indeed, considerable goodwill may accrue to local legal and economic businesses that informally support a successful mayor.
Essentially, Charlotte has a means test on running for mayor, because individuals who have to work fulltime cannot realistically hope to do the job of mayor. It is time to change this barrier to political access by making the mayor the fulltime city CEO, paying a decent salary and prohibiting other employment.
Concentrating executive responsibility in one elected official also allows the public to see where the buck stops. Weak mayor systems diffuse responsibility among city council members, each answering to a different constituency.
The perennial civic issue in the 20th century used to be city-county government consolidation. We effectively solved that question by maintaining the government structures while consolidating their functions. Now the issue is whether the city will develop the accountable and responsive democratic political structure that befits its status as a major international city. Let’s hear what the candidates think about this subject!
Brandon is the emeritus MMF Distinguished Professor of Public Policy, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, UNC Charlotte.