October 27, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


Mr. Mayor 

The six roles of the city's new CEO — and the realigned power structure he'll face.

1) The Chief

"The mayor used to be like the speaker of the house," says Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine, a former Richmond mayor who served in the old system. "Now the mayor becomes more like the president or the governor."

Once a mayor is sworn in, he becomes the official head of city government in the eyes of the law and the people. He's responsible for big jobs, such as hiring someone to fill the new position of chief administrative officer, and for lighter duties like ribbon-cuttings.

But just because the buck stops with the mayor, that doesn't mean he can run the show however he wants. Why? City Council.

2) The Negotiator

In essence, the charter change has created two distinct branches of government. A mayor-at-large may be more powerful, but there are checks and balances that will require a give and take between the mayor and the nine council members.

For example, the mayor must attend council meetings, where he may introduce city ordinances. But he can only speak, not vote. And councilmen can crash his ordinances with a majority vote, because the mayor has no veto power. Yet he is able to call special meetings of City Council.

"The mayor really needs to work with council," says John V. Moeser, professor of urban politics at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government at Virginia Commonwealth University and an architect of the city's new charter. The separation of powers, Moeser says, "is going to require some coalition-building."

And perhaps more than people think. Without veto power, council can easily handcuff the mayor, especially during budget season. It's somewhat unusual for the mayor not to have a veto, says Robert J. O'Neill, executive director of the International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C.

O'Neill, who studied the new charter and presented his findings to City Council members and city administrators in September, says that the new charter may actually give council more influence than the mayor.

"You've got a lot of cards if you are a council member," he says. "Council has an enormous amount of influence and power compared to that of the mayor."

Kaine sees things differently. "The City Council's role becomes less important," he says, "because, in Richmond, there's no elected executive until now." That will mean that citizens will be the chief leader, and held accountable.

But Moeser's not so sure. He says the missing veto is perhaps his biggest disappointment in the charter that passed the General Assembly this year. "There was some resistance to really go to a strong mayor," Moeser recalls of the statehouse debate. "I never heard a coherent argument [for not including veto power]. All I heard was hesitating to go to a really strong mayor."

What does it mean? The scariest proposition is a stalemate, says Moeser. If the city elects an aggressive, strong-willed mayor such as former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, there could be more opportunity for disagreement, and breakdowns with City Council.

"Think of what would happen in the city of Richmond if we had the kind of stalemate we had in the General Assembly [this year]," Moeser says. "It could rip us apart."

Another position, however, may help bridge relations between the mayor and council. That's the role of the vice mayor, which takes on more importance under the new charter, says Delegate Viola O. Baskerville, who sponsored the city's charter change bill in the General Assembly.

The council will select a vice mayor from among the nine council members. He or she will lead council meetings and could be compared with the speaker of the house in the Assembly's House of Delegates, Baskerville says.

"So it's going to be incumbent that the vice-mayor now has a better grasp on presiding over a meeting, procedure, rules of order and is strong on public policy," Baskerville says. The vice mayor will become a sort of liaison between the mayor and the council — setting up the kind of "constructive tension" that typically exists between the house speaker and the governor.

"You see the possibility for a new dynamic in leadership," she says — "and new dynamics in conversation between the vice mayor and the mayor."

But overall, the scales seem to tip toward the mayor, Moeser stresses: "The council will not be able to control the mayor as the council now controls the city manager."

3) The Boss

The mayor's biggest ally may be the only person he can hire and fire: the chief administrative officer, whose responsibility is to appoint, discipline, transfer and assign duties to employees of city departments.

While the mayor is boss, his power here is limited. Council must first approve his choice for chief administrator. Second, the mayor — like councilmembers — cannot direct orders to any city employees, even through the chief administrator.

Those caveats may be a matter of law, but in reality, the mayor will surely hire someone in harmony with his philosophy. "And I think that's what the citizens would want," Kaine says.

4) The Strategist

"There's a lot of informal power that comes with the position," Kaine says. That informal power can be summoned effectively by a good leader.

When he was in office, Kaine says he endeavored to determine a strategic plan for the city, to convince council to go along with it, to tell the city manager he was expected to go along with it and to convey that message to the citizens. In short — set goals and lead the city in the right direction.

"I feel like I did," Kaine says. But there was an obstacle, he adds: "I also had to be a district representative." His dual role as mayor and city councilman was a balancing act, he says — he had to work for his ward constituents while leading the city as a whole.

The new mayor will have the freedom — and time — to focus on the whole. And he will have another power at his disposal: the budget.

5) The Finance Officer

Under the old form of government, the job of budgeting went to the city manager. Under the new form, the mayor takes charge.

One of his duties is to keep council aware of where the city stands financially, where it needs to be, and what its budget should be each year. No later than April 7 each year, the mayor must submit a budget for the city, the public schools and each utility. He also must deliver a capital budget and a budget message, according to the charter.

And at any time, the mayor may ask for budget updates from any city department.

This role is about more than numbers, Baskerville says. It's about vision.

The mayor, rather than a city manager controlled by council, will be able to set his priorities for the city, then support and fulfill that vision through the budget. The budget then must be approved by a vote of at least six councilmembers.

That will force council to say that yes, they concur with the mayor's vision, or to express their difference of opinion.

So the mayor becomes the person to set the vision, she says, "rather than the vision of the city set through the budget from a majority of six people."

6) The Power Player

For the first time since 1948, citizens will have a face that directly represents them as a whole. That may lend more credibility and strength to the mayor's work in lobbying the General Assembly and joining with other elected representatives on regional efforts.

And then there is another clause in the charter. It's the last in a list of five that reads: "It shall be the duty of the mayor to … issue regulations that may be necessary in order to implement his/her duties and powers."

"Now that is interesting," Moeser says. "Obviously it's very vague. It's new to the charter. It's not a revision. And in my view, it gives considerable leeway to the mayor."

Baskerville says she views the clause as a way for the mayor to act in emergency situations — such as those needed to bolster security — and not to bypass other processes in the charter, such as budget hearings, for example.

How will a new mayor interpret the "issue regulations" clause? What rules could he create? How far beyond the scope of the charter could the mayor add to his powers? That depends on the mayor.

Moeser points out that President Thomas Jefferson used the similar "necessary and proper" clause from the Constitution to justify his purchase of the Louisiana Territory — not an inconsequential feat. S — Scott Bass contributed to this report

Letters to the editor may be sent to: letters@styleweekly.com


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