More than mayor or manager: campaigns to change form of government in america's large cities James H. Svara and Douglas J. Watson (eds) Georgetown University Press, 2010, 346 pp., $34.43 (pb), ISBN: 9781589017092

Madison once said: ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary’ (Federalist 19611961). As we know, however, men fall short of this exalted position and government, its framing, and its particular structures are quite necessary for men to govern men. In the United States at the local level, there are basically two forms of governmental structure. The mayor–council form is composed of an elected mayor and council and theoretically they work together to run the business of the city. This form of government is found in many small cities under 5,000 in population and in large cities over 250,000. The second form of government is the council–manager form which also has an elected mayor and council; however, its unique feature is that it also has an appointed professional manager to actually run the business of the city. This form of government is found in cities of all sizes but is mainly found in cities with populations between 25,000 and 250,000. A recurring theme in Svara and Watson's text is that form of government matters. The authors note that ‘form is the constitutional and legal basis for assigning authority and function to officials in government and creates its overall framework’ (p. 4).

The edited collection of 14 case studies in this book looks at local campaigns to change the form of government in America's large cities. These cities are among 22 large cities that experienced a change in their city charters since 1990. The authors note that the trend in the choice of form of government has leaned to the council–manager form but this trend has not necessarily extended to large cities. The book is organized with the first part highlighting the changes from council–manager form to mayor–council form of government. Six cities are featured detailing how these changes occurred. Part 2 looks at large cities that rejected a change from council–manager to mayor–council form of government. Four cities are included in this section. The third part of the book looks at two cities that changed from mayor–council to council–manager form of government and how professionalism over politics was the key to success. The final section of the book looks at two cities that rejected a change to mayor–council form from commission and weak mayor forms of government.

There are a variety of reasons for which the large cities highlighted in this book have abandoned the council–manager form and adopted the mayor–council form of government. For instance, the city of St. Petersburg, Florida changed form in 1993 as a consequence of a perceived lack of consideration for the elderly, historic preservation groups, and activist neighbourhoods that viewed the pro-development city hall as hostile to their interest. Policy differences over development in this city resulted in a structural change in the form of government. Similarly, a failed development plan and high-profile personnel problems in Spokane, Washington led to voters changing their form of government. In Hartford, Connecticut a combination of various issues in 2002 led to a change. High taxes for the business community, white flight to the suburbs, partisan bickering, and extreme racial tension and violence, all contributed to the change of government form. Additionally, the authors note that popular, assertive mayors and city managers hired from within the city contributed to conditions for a change. In Richmond, Virginia the triggers that caused the transformation were economic decline, ethical lapses in local government, an adversarial relationship with businesses, and conflict with surrounding suburbs. Finally, in 2004 both San Diego and Oakland, California adopted the mayor council form of government for similar reasons. In both cases strong mayors such as Pete Wilson in San Diego and Jerry Brown in Oakland sought more power for the mayor's office. Additionally, in San Diego a financial debacle and the mobilization of community leaders helped to facilitate the switch.

Since 1990 nine large cities have retained the council–manager form of government and rejected the transformation to a mayor–council type government. The authors correctly argue and it is corroborated in the literature that proponents of the council–manager form typically argue that efficiency, accountability, ethical behaviour, and professionalism are key positions for this form of government. They go on to state, for instance, that the ‘Mayor and council is a governing board that focuses on coherent objective policymaking and oversight of administrative performance; a cooperative relationship exists between the mayor, the council, and the manager; city administration is innovative and incorporates leading practices; and decisions reflect universal values such as equality, fairness, social equity, inclusiveness, responsiveness, efficiency, and effectiveness’ (p. 15). The four cities (Kansas City, Missouri; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Dallas, Texas; and Cincinnati, Ohio) featured by the authors retained the council manager form. In all cases, there were groups that wanted a change but the majority of voters opposed the switch. It appears from the case studies that a common theme to diffuse a desire to change form of government was to grant additional powers to the mayor through charter amendments and a continued desire by the general public to keep professionalism as the standard bearer of local government.

The turn of the last century brought with it the progressive era which introduced the council–manager form of government. The professionalism featured in this form was in stark contrast to the corruption that existed in many local governments because of machine politics and unsavoury and unethical characters. The book highlights two cities that changed from mayor–council to council–manager forms of government in 2004. Although not the typical trend for large cities, the cities of El Paso, Texas and Topeka, Kansas made the transition. True to historical precedents from the progressive era, one of the main reasons El Paso changed form of government was because of the inefficiency, ineffectiveness, periods of corruption, partisanship, ethnic violence, and general dissatisfaction with the level of service that the local government provided. The first formal adoption of the council–manager plan took place in Sumter, South Carolina, in 1912. Ninety-two years later the city of El Paso switched to a form of government which has substantially reduced the corruption in local government. Advocates in Topeka tried for approximately 80 years to secure a change in form but were not successful until a scandal with the city's purchasing card system and problems in the mayor's office occurred. It is interesting to note that the council–manager form of government has a reputation for providing sound government services and ethical behaviour.

The authors note that the book is based on a desire to better understand the two basic forms of local government in the United States as they coexist in a peaceful competitive fashion. They argue that with both forms of government ‘there was usually a combination of dissatisfaction with the governmental process or failure in performance that led significant groups to question the form of government in use’ (p. 305). The debate over form of government will continue as the years go on because governmental actors within each form of government will either enhance and improve services or devalue and diminish the public service.


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  • The Federalist Papers 1961. The New American Library of World Literature, Inc. Mentor Publishing.