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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

It's Time for Wichita (and its Government) to Get Strong

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

A short while ago, The Wichita Eagle ran a column of mine on the brouhaha over whether the Wichita City Council ought to continue with the current limit of two terms for city council members, or if is ought to be expanded to three. Since talking about government is what I do for a living--and since this argument is likely to come back sometime in the new year--let me expand on this a little.

To reiterate, Wichita has a council-manager form of government. That means that the city is divided into districts (in our case six, meaning each council member theoretically represents the concerns and interests of roughly 65,000 people), and the mayor is simply an at-large member of the city council, with some particular procedural responsibilities (supposedly enough to make it a full-time position, whereas every other member of the council is nominally a part-time employee of the city), but fundamentally no different from anyone else elected to the council to a 4-year term. Practical executive power--that is, the authority to keep the city running on a day-to-day basis--is not vested in the mayor or the council, but rather in a city manager, who is hired (at $228K a year, more than twice what the mayor is paid) by the city council, and theoretically subject to their oversight. It's a perfectly respectable--and arguably much more efficient--form of municipal government, one that became dominant in the U.S. during the reforms of the Progressive Era a century ago, and is, in all its many varieties, the most common municipal form, characterizing the great majority of small to mid-size cities.

Still, the complaint which motivated Councilmember Jeff Blubaugh to propose the one-term extension to the term limits imposed on the Wichita city council by the voters in 1991 is exacerbated under the council-manager arrangement. His concern was that part-time, term-limited council members often end up being entirely dependent upon the historical knowledge, the bureaucratic expertise, and the institutional preferences of the city’s permanent staff, with whom the city manager obviously has a long-term, professional relationship with. Such a relationship could, presumably, work to the detriment of any council member who is seeking to represent their constituents' interest. As he put it, "Staff can tell you whatever you want to hear. And after a certain amount of time, they know that you’re gone, and you’re leaving." He's not wrong on this point. Though it's worth noting that the same thing can be said about the way elected council members often find themselves, upon entering office, in a subservient position in regards to long-standing, well-established private development interests as well. All of which, to my mind, is more than enough reason to look at the deeper, more structural causes at work in Blubaugh's entirely valid concerns.

If you set aside the major financial and population centers in this part of the country (meaning Kansas City, Denver, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, or Dallas, all of which have metro areas with millions of people, and all of which Wichitans too often compare themselves to), and look instead at actual peer cities to Wichita (meaning mid-sized cities that serve as regional centers to the mostly rural land that surrounds them, as we do), you'll see a pattern than our city ought to learn from: most of them have instead elected to embrace a strong mayor form of government. That is, the mayor is elected separately from the city council, does not sit and vote with them, and instead wields real executive authority on behalf of a city-wide mandate, rather than having most power outsourced to the city manager. The city councils in these cities are similarly strengthened, with increased legislative responsibility and authority given them to balance out an empowered mayor. An effort is also made to make them more immediately connected to the people they represent, either by increasing the number of people elected to the council (and thus shrinking the number of residents which each council member is expected to represent), or by including a greater number of at-large members elected (thus giving to citizens multiple opportunities to connect with candidates and express their political ideas through their votes).

Let's run through a list of peer cities that fit the criteria I mentioned above; for example, consider (from the smallest in population to the largest) Des Moines, Iowa; Spokane, Washington (my home town!); Boise, Idaho; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Lincoln, Nebraska; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Omaha, Nebraska; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. With the exception of Des Moines (which, it should be noted, is barely 2/3rds the size of Wichita), every one of them have opted for the strong mayor system. With the exception of Boise, every one of them have at least 7 elected members on their city council, and most have 9, with an average council member-resident representation ratio of one city council member for every 57,000 residents, significantly lower than Wichita (even that average is misleading, since five of the above cities--Des Moines, Spokane, Fort Wayne, Lincoln, and Colorado Springs--include at least one, and usually multiple, additional at-large elected city council members in their total). And incidentally, none of them, with the exception of Lincoln, have any term limits on those elected to city government, and in Lincoln's case the term limitation (of three terms, rather than two) has been imposed on the mayor, not the city council.

Every city is different, of course, with a political culture that develops organically over time. There were particular reasons why Wichita voted--though keep in mind that the vote was a narrow one--to impose term limits back in 1991. Still, cities grow and the times change. It has been nearly 30 years since that vote, so perhaps it is time to think again about how our city organizes its government, and consider the alternatives. The primary idea behind the strong mayor alternative is the acknowledgement that, within a city of hundreds of thousands of people, distinct interests and agendas will emerge, and hence the city’s law-making body must be able to effectively represent--and, where appropriate, contend over--that wide range of interests. And similarly, such empowered representation would also require a mayor democratically empowered to respond to, implement, or sometimes reject the results of such a contentious process.

“Contention,” of course, scares some people; their ideal is a city government that is apolitical, city elections that are non-partisan, city staff that are disinterested and neutral, and overall a city political culture that never, ever rocks the boat. There is much to be said for that ideal, of course. One of the consequences of the strong mayor alternative would indeed be the more explicit politicization of Wichita's urban governance. But as I've argued before, there are equally good reasons for that politicization. And moreover, the claim that city elections in Wichita over the past 30 years really have been non-partisan, and really didn't involve political parties and voting blocs and all the rest, is simply false, and everyone who pays attention knows that to be true. So perhaps Wichita needs a governing model that matches the actual reality of the city we have become? We are not a small homogeneous hamlet with only small-scale disagreements. A city council that is strengthened, and balanced, so as to convey and put into effect the large-scale, contentious disagreements and needs of a city like our own, might therefore be an improvement which is long overdue.

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