New Castle City Council has requested that a question to create a home rule study and a panel to execute it be placed on the November ballot.
If the study is approved, and the panel would recommend a home rule charter, one possible aspect of it would be a change from the city’s present mayor-council form of government to a council-manager arrangement.
Voters also would have to approve that change before it would be enacted.
A council-manager government leans more toward a corporate structure of governance. A city council is elected by the public, and the council elects one of its members as chairperson, or mayor. However, the council also will appoint a city manager who, rather than the mayor, oversees the city’s daily operations. The manager is empowered to make appointments and key managerial decisions and, because the position is an appointed one rather than an elected one, it has the potential to be better insulated against political influence.
The city manager proposes the city budget, which must be approved by council, and is responsible for setting the city council agenda.
In New Castle’s current strong mayor-council form of government, the mayor and council are separate, with council selecting its own presiding officer. While council has the authority to draft ordinances, the mayor has the authority to veto them (although council also has the ability to override). The mayor appoints department directors.
According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, council-manager is the most common form of local government in the nation. But experts say there are advantages to both the council-manager and mayor-council approaches.
Under a strong mayor arrangement, a city has clearly visible political leadership. The mayor provides a single point of contact for constituents. As an elected administrator, the mayor is directly accountable to the voters and, as a single entity, he/she can both map out a vision and act on it.
However, the single-entity aspect can be a double-edge sword, since the mayor also presents a single target for pressure from political interests and vocal minorities. This creates the potential for decisions to be made for political expedience rather than in the best interests of the city.
Moreover, since the mayor appoints department heads who report directly to him/her, long-term stability is at risk each time a mayor is voted out of office, and his/her replacement makes new appointments.
Because a multi-person council makes the decisions in a council-manager government, there is less risk of political influence steering the course. Stability also is enhanced, as key positions are filled by the city manager and are not subject to ouster based on election results.
On the downside, since the manager takes direction only from council, there is no single point person for residents to address with concerns. And with no designated spot for the buck to stop, it can be easier for elected officials to pass on accepting accountability.
When all is said and done, though, the council-manager form of government remains the most common form of local government in the U.S., according not only to the Penn institute but also to the International City/County Management Association, which notes that 92 million Americans live in council-manager communities.
Which system is better for New Castle? That will be the responsibility of a home rule commission to decide and recommend.
Even before that, though, it will be the job of New Castle voters to examine carefully those who wish to serve on the commission, and to staff that panel only with those who have no vested interest in either preserving the status quo or in advancing personal agendas through change.
Open minds only need apply.