Opinion: Who runs cities after those cities vote?

In a few days, voters across Kansas will choose members of their city’s governing councils. In some cases they’ll also be voting for mayors; when they aren’t, it’s because their city elected a mayor during the previous odd-year cycle, or because the mayor is chosen from among those elected to the city council by an internal vote.

But whether the mayor is separately elected or not, there are two things nearly all of these elections have in common. First, not very many voters will participate in them. Second, those who do participate aren’t really voting for who will be in charge of where they live.

That’s a broad claim and not an entirely fair one. Those elected to municipal positions truly do have the responsibility to make decisions about taxes, spending, investment, infrastructure, public safety and more. Since those decisions profoundly affect Kansas towns and cities, doesn’t that mean they deserve to be called “in charge” of those localities?

Well, yes. But still: who drafted the budgets that framed the available options for possible taxes and spending? Who studied the proposals and made investment recommendations? Who worked out plans and priorities for infrastructure maintenance? While those elected to city governments can, through their decisions, enable cities to pursue various agendas, in the end they are mostly not deciding what goes onto those agendas in the first place.

Who does? City managers and their staff, that’s who.

A hundred years ago, broad disgust with corruption in municipal governments, along with the great faith many felt in the power of specialization and expertise, led to a wave of reforms across the United States. Specific executive power was often taken away from municipal officials and given to professionals who were hired to take care of the fine details of taxation, development and more. Many would argue that this led to great practical improvements in how cities and towns are administered, and there is some evidence in support of that claim. But it also led to an abiding democratic deficit: so much of the day-to-day decisions in cities across America are made, or at least defined, by unelected professionals, not those who seek the people’s votes.

Kansas municipalities overwhelmingly maintain these kind of council-manager governments, where the mayor is equal to all other members of city council, discussing and voting up or down on what the city manager and their permanent city staff put before them. The contrary governing system — a “strong mayor” system, such as was preserved in cities like Tulsa, Omaha and elsewhere — is one where the mayor is the true chief executive of the city, who appoints a staff and negotiates with the city council, which in turn serves as genuine legislative body, advancing the specific (admittedly, often partisan) interests of those who elected them in their districts.

Many defenders of Kansas’ dominant council-manager approach insist that it is appropriate for sewers, roads, parks and more to be overseen by professionals; they assume that returning detailed executive responsibility to elected politicians would only polarize city governments the way America’s state and national governments are polarized. That’s a fair point.

But it is also fair to point out that one possible reason that participation in local elections is often so often low is because many voters may realize that those they are electing are sometimes almost more an oversight body to the professionals who actually run their city, rather than the other way around. If we want local turnout to change, perhaps government structures need to change too.

— Russell Arben Fox teaches politics at Friends University in Wichita.


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