City’s peculiar structure adds to squabbles

Marion’s city government is unusual, and I’m not talking about the people involved but the structure of the government itself. Many cities have a mayor-council form of government, but not many have it structured quite the way Marion does.

Many people mistake Marion’s government structure for being like a school board, where there is an elected school board with a presiding officer and a hired, professional superintendent — in this metaphor the council would be the school board, the mayor would be the council president, and the city administrator would be the superintendent.

That isn’t the case, though. Marion’s city code invests the mayor with both legislative and executive power. Officially, the mayor’s powers are more like the combined powers of the school superintendent and school board president. Or, to use national politics as an analogy, Marion’s government is structured as if the president of the United States was also the speaker of the House of Representatives. The mayor presides over meetings and has a vote, but also has all appointing authority and is officially the superintending officer of the city administrator, clerk, deputy clerk, treasurer, police chief, fire chief, attorney, “and other officers and employees as they may deem necessary.”

The council can refuse to confirm an appointment the mayor makes, but if it does, it has to provide an official reason why. That clause led to the council declaring a dedicated and engaged volunteer unqualified and unfit to serve on the Board of Zoning Appeals.

The amount of authority the mayor has as both a voting member of the council and executive of the city naturally leads to conflict. Is the mayor one of five equal members of the city council? Or is the mayor the city’s chief executive? The answer to both questions is yes. Whoever the mayor, if he or she acts as an executive and exercises the full authority granted in the city code, there will be people who, rightly or wrongly, call it dictatorial. On the flip side, if he or she acts as just another member of the council, there will be people who, rightly or wrongly, call it weak leadership.

When the city commission voted in December 2005 to expand to a five-member council and set the powers of the mayor, it set up the city for years of conflicts. The experiment has failed. Whoever wins the election Tuesday, it is time for the council and mayor to choose — is the mayor part of the council or an executive? Trying to have it both ways will just lead to more damaging disputes.

— ADAM STEWART

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