Want A Strong Mayor? Elect One!

(June 2011)

"If you want a strong mayor," my old boss used to say, "elect one."

I was offered that perspective in 1994 when I was on the staff of the Philadelphia Independent Charter Commission, crafting proposals for reforming city government. But, despite any of my policy wonking, it was clear to the Commission Chair that Philadelphia's chief executive didn't need any more power to be a strong leader.

Of course, some mayors are stronger than others and some mayors make such poor use of their power that they threaten the concept of the strong mayor itself.

Mayor Nutter is not a strong mayor. After nearly four years of his mayoralty, the phrase, "another political defeat for Mayor Nutter" has become so common, the kids text it as APDFMN.

Make no mistake, Philadelphia does have a strong-mayor form of government. But, in Mayor Nutter's case, function most certainly does not follow form.

By the design of the City Charter, Philadelphia's Mayor has tremendous authority and holds nearly all the cards in Philadelphia's power game. The Mayor, and the Mayor alone, sets the revenue estimate each year for the city budget. The Mayor, without intervention, negotiates contracts and directs the efforts of the city workforce. The Mayor, unilaterally, makes the vast majority of city appointments without any formal input or interference. Outside official duties and responsibilities, hizzoner is the center of Philadelphia's civic universe and has the opportunity to use the bully pulpit like nobody else in town.

But as he demonstrated in losing his latest fights with City Council -- Council defied the Mayor by keeping DROP, rejecting a soda tax, scaling back the call for additional funding for the School District, and adopting paid-sick-time legislation -- Mayor Nutter has had little success building with his power tools.

He has proven equally incapable of using carrots or sticks and has shown little ability to seal back-room deals or rally the public to his causes. But Nutter's defeats are not just fodder for City Hall gossip mongers. By extending his losing streak to City Council -- Nutter would have an easier time getting Council to pass kidney stones than getting them to pass his significant legislative proposals -- he threatens to upset the balance of power established by the design of the City Charter.

When the Mayor moves to close libraries and loses a fight with Council about his authority to unilaterally manage the City's facilities and when the Mayor is threatened by Council over his ability to determine administrative matters such as where to locate bike lanes and when the Mayor is forced to allow Council to determine how School District funds are to be spent, he weakens the mayoralty itself.

Unless he gets to the City Hall gym and starts to pump some mayoral iron, Michael Nutter might just end up having municipal sand kicked in his face for the next four years. In fact, if his next four years become all about saving face (does he really expect us to believe that he did not "lose" the battle on the soda tax because Council technically didn't vote on the legislation?) he may end up ceding power to award contracts, negotiate agreements, or make appointments to Council just to maintain the appearance of political viability.

That would not only damage Nutter's political abilities in his second term, it could set precedents that could undermine Philadelphia's strong-mayor form of government in ways that would take more than Charter reform to undo. If future Councils are emboldened to demand Council approval to hire a Police chief, revise trash-collection schedules or fill a vacancy on the Art Commission, Philadelphia will have a municipal governance train wreck on its hands.

In response to my old boss, perhaps we need to elect a strong mayor to preserve the strong-mayor form of government. And who was that old boss of mine? He's certainly a guy who knew a thing or two about exercising power in City Hall: former Councilmember, Council President, and Mayor -- John Street.