The False Appeal of the “Strong Mayor”

And the Limited Understanding of the Strengths of the Council-Manager Form of Government. James H. Svara.

[Editorial note: In the City of Miami, the Council is the City Commission.]

In my academic career in political science and public administration, I have examined efforts to change the form of government in American cities and the arguments that have been made in referenda to support and oppose the two major alternatives. These are the Strong Mayor-Council and the Council-Manager Forms of Government.

The council-manager mayor is not “weak,” i.e., having certain powers but not others as in weak mayor-council cities. Nor is the mayor an insignificant figurehead. The mayor can and should be a visionary, and the mayor is also a facilitator who helps all officials work together effectively. The mayor strives to create a shared vision for the city with the support of the entire council. Council decisions are supported by the comprehensive and objective information and advice from the city manager — the appointed executive — that is provided to all of the council members and to the public.

“This important book is a contribution to both public administration and urban politics. It sheds light on the issues of democracy in political science but also has practical advice for those who are appointed or are elected officials.” — Dick Simpson, University of Illinois at Chicago. Book cover courtesy of Georgetown University Press.

Strong Mayor

The so-called “strong” mayor may push his/her own agenda and use the powers of the office to compel support from the council. This behavior contributes to the term “boss mayor” sometimes used to describe the strong mayor. The public may hear a lot about the supposed accomplishments of these mayors, but this results in part from having a public relations team to promote the mayor’s reputation. The strong mayor is expected to manage the operations of the city, but the public and political demands on the mayor’s time make this difficult. Rather they focus on a few areas that are priorities to them. Some strong mayors have a chief administrative officer (CAO), but this official commonly operates within the sphere of the mayor and backs the mayor’s preferred approaches. CAOs usually only share with the council and the public the information that is approved by the mayor.

Weak Mayor

The council in the council-manager form is a true governing body, not just a legislative body that checks the mayor. The council sets the policy of course, but it also sets goals and priorities, reviews and revises policy proposals, and oversees the performance of the manager and staff. The council conducts real oversight through review of extensive information provided by the manager. The council chooses the city manager who is the best-qualified applicant from across the country to achieve the vision the council has established for the city and monitors the manager’s performance.

The city manager does not just handle the day-to-day operations of city government, but also manages the long-term goals of the city and provides the council with a professional perspective on the opportunities and challenges that the city faces. The manager is independent but continuously accountable. A CAO is neither, and it is usually not possible to remove an executive mayor who is not performing adequately until the next election. If a recall of the mayor is possible, this requires a large-scale collection of citizens’ signatures of a recall petition and is very disruptive to the city.

The Council

The council’s role in the mayor-council form can be restricted to reacting to the mayor’s proposals based on information provided by the mayor. The oversight role can be constrained by limits on the performance data that the mayor will permit departments to provide. A council member could be the beneficiary of a reward from the mayor for supporting his/her proposals, but council members could be punished for taking an independent stand. As is true of separation-of-powers structures at the state and national level, conflict between the mayor and council is likely and can produce divisions within the council based on differing levels of allegiance to the mayor. Disagreement between a majority of the council and the mayor can produce an impasse.

It is possible that the strong mayor-council form could be fortunate to have a mayor with the appropriate vision and capabilities that the city needs. It is also possible that the perspective and skills of the mayor will be inadequate, and the performance of the city will decline with no short-term possibility of correcting the shortcomings. The council-manager form with an elected mayor provides for vision, shared governance, informed advise and complete performance information, a professional executive with the requisite experience and expertise, and continuous transparency. Local governments do not have to revert to the separation-of-powers structure used at higher levels of government. The council-manager form is designed for local governments.

If the key objective is to have a form that generates a shared vision for the city and positive accomplishments, cities with the council-manager form already have the right form of government. Is it advisable to make a change that could trade shared vision and cooperative relationships for ambition and division?

Dr. James H. Svara is a retired professor who taught at U.N.C.-Greensboro, N.C. State University, and Arizona State University. He received a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. Key publications relevant to form of government and roles of mayors, councils, and city managers are Editor and contributor, More than Mayor or Manager: Campaigns to Change Form of Government in America’s Large Cities(Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2010) (with Douglas Watson). Editor and contributor, The Facilitative Leader in City Hall: Reexamining the Scope and Contributions (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2008.)

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