Austin’s ‘Strong Mayor’ proposal misses the fundamental issues in our country’s electoral process

The failure of the Austin City Council and Mayor to fire an ineffective City Manager is not a reason to ask politicians to do the job of civil servants. It is folly to expect someone whose main skill is winning votes to have also have the skills required to manage our city

Pandering to donors and surviving the reality TV show called elections are not skills of governance
Photo: Pawel Czerwinski via Unsplash

Democracy, Winston Churchill once said, “is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Treatises have been written on the subject and as the years pass, more could be added to critique the merits and shortcomings of our modern and imperfect governing system.

But that broad debate is not the topic here. Rather, it is a critically local subset: our uniquely American version of democracy and in particular a nuanced corner in that experiment at the intersection of direct and indirect democracy. Were Churchill to reflect on the upcoming referendum to replace Austin’s City Manager with a newly-empowered “Strong Mayor,” he might well remind us that he, like all other U.K. Prime Ministers was never directly elected by voters as any more than a member of Parliament; rather it was his party’s victory in the general election that made him the Prime Minister.

It would be hard to find someone arguing in favor of a true direct democracy in the spirit of Ancient Greece, where voters contemplated every issue related to their governance. Even the Greeks themselves had to restrict the voting population to a small, wealthy class who could devote their days to such issues. However, in the modern age there is often a debate on when voters themselves should elect a governmental position and when their elected representatives are better positioned to make that decision for them. It’s that debate that is at the origin of the electoral college for US presidential elections. As a point of comparison, over three-quarters of the EU member states, like the U.K, have a parliamentary system in which the elected representatives chose the head of state. It is that same debate that has brought the “Strong Mayor” proposal to Austin’s May 1 election in the form of Proposition F.

In this unique American version of democracy, with its countless idiosyncrasies, getting elected is a skill and a profession in its own right. While parliamentary systems see heads of state skilled at navigating intra- and interparty politics and representatives skilled at effectively carrying out the party’s agenda (while the parties themselves are focused on the polls), in our American system, every representative, up and down the ballot, has become skilled in two things: pandering to donors and surviving in the reality TV show that we call elections. In down ballot races, to which the average voter hardly pays attention, that skill can be drawing the first name on the ballot as Rob Morrow showed by becoming the chairman of the Travis County Republican Party. And in national elections it can be maintaining the media’s attention at all costs. As election cycles become longer, money in politics increases, and the cadence of the news media becomes ever shorter, the skills required to obtain office have developed an ever-widening gulf with the skills required to govern.  In the US, the job title “politician” no longer means one who governs; it means one who gets elected (and can secure donations for that self-serving cause).

Politics has become too divided. Accountability has become a farce. The nuances of governing no longer matter. Sadly, the line of “better than the alternative” carries the day more often than not. We typically choose candidates in primaries based upon electability, not ability or ideals. At the end of the day, we elect politicians who are, at best, mediocre at their jobs of actually governing.

One could, and should, argue that we should do the right thing and try as a nation to restore the integrity and dignity in our politics and electoral cycles. But on our current trajectory we are likely past the point of no return. Therefore, we should do the next best thing, separate the responsibility of governance from the responsibility of getting elected.

Let our politicians spend their time shaking hands, kissing babies, raising money, posting on social media, and taking TV interviews. Let them be likable and charismatic. Let them embody the persona we desire to show our children and the rest of the world. Let them be someone who inspires us and can rub shoulders with their foreign counterparts. But let us have them hire individuals to actually govern: the experts to focus on the details, not the talking points; to make the hard decisions that have a cost today but can improve our city and our world for the future generations.

In the private sector there is an adage that any CEO or Executive Director can appreciate: “If you want a working board, keep it small; If you want a consent board, go as big as you can.” At a certain size, no individual has a voice and the CEO can do whatever he or she wants. The same is true in government. If the City Manager is the CEO of Austin, 11 people can more effectively maintain accountability, critique, set prioritizes, and remove him or her if the manager doesn’t do their job than can 1.1 million people. At that scale, it becomes a popularity contest not a thoughtful evaluation of their job performance.

This is not to be an endorsement of the current city manager in Austin. I personally do not believe he has been effective or responsive to the needs of the city. Had I been on the City Council, I would have voted to fire him a long time ago, not hid behind his existence as the reason that real change could not happen. And the voters in Austin should view the City Council’s failure to do so as a black mark on the resume of the mayor and each member of Austin’s City Council the next time it comes for them to run for office.

But that is not a reason to ask politicians to do the job of civil servants. It is not a reason to upend the system and give more power to a sitting mayor that just failed to effectively wield the power he currently does have. There is no reason to expect someone whose skill is getting votes to have a skill of managing our city. In this year, in this country, those are vastly different skill sets.

The failure of our City Council and mayor to remove a city manager, whom they have the full authority to remove, is the perfect example of why they are not capable of actually governing. They collectively chose to hide behind a scapegoat rather than to make the tough decision and invite accountability during a challenging situation. That is not what a leader does; that is what a politician does.

We should take steps to empower the City Council to fire the city manager more quickly. They should be aware that their primary responsibility is to choose the right city manager, set their priorities, and manage them appropriately. It is no different than a corporate board. A board doesn’t govern. It chooses the CEO, manages the CEO, and when the CEO doesn’t perform, replaces the CEO. That is something that we can ask of our mayor and City Council members. And that is something that we should hold our elected officials accountable for.

Until we fix our political system, the right answer is not to give more power to our elected officials. It is to hold our elected officials accountable to a job that they are actually capable of doing.

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