In times of crisis, it is tempting to blame the politicians and turn to the professionals. But the recent experiences of several California cities demonstrate the limits of professional expertise and the indispensability of politicians.
First, it's important to recognize the distinction between two major styles of city governance: strong-mayor and council-manager.
Among the distressed and scandal-plagued California cities that have attracted national attention in the past few years, just as many seem to be council-manager cities as strong mayor cities. Under council-manager, a professional administrator runs city government. He or she is appointed by the city council, not elected by voters. Under strong-mayor government, the mayor, elected by the people, directs the city's administration and serves as the city's political head.
Among the distressed and scandal-plagued California cities that have attracted national attention in the past few years, just as many have been council-manager cities as strong mayor cities.
Vallejo, Bell, Stockton, Compton and San Bernardino are all council-manager cities. In the earlier part of the last decade, under council-manager government, San Diego became known as "Enron-by-the-sea." California city managers have been personally implicated in recent pension scandals in Upland, Atherton and tiny Vernon.
This was not supposed to happen. Early 20th century Progressive reformers designed council-manager government to be good government. To the Progressives, good government required the separation of politics and administration -- a concept central to their strategy to wrest control of city government from the urban machines, whose patronage empires had bred political corruption and incompetent administration.
Council-manager government proved to be hugely popular, particularly among mid-sized American cities. At present, over 60 percent of American cities with a population between 25,000 and 249,000 have council-manager government. But not everyone was sold. Council-manager critics have long alleged that the city manager has too much power for an unelected official -- while at the same time, he lacks sufficient power to get anything done.
This criticism is relevant to the crisis afflicting the governments of American cities, rich and poor alike. Its essence is fiscal and administrative inflexibility caused by unreasonable union contracts and the unsustainable costs of public-employee benefits. Most American cities will not declare bankruptcy, but all feel the squeeze, and all are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver basic municipal services at the level to which their communities have become accustomed. Budgets are rising, but productivity and the quality of city services are not.
Hence the need for bold reform, which is far more likely to be accomplished by a politician than an administrator. Take San Diego, whose strong mayor, Jerry Sanders, persuaded voters this past June to pass comprehensive pension reform. Backed by 2/3 of voters, Proposition B will eliminate defined-benefit pensions for all new nonpublic safety employees and save taxpayers nearly $1 billion. Sanders was the first strong mayor elected in 2005 after San Diego voters scrapped council-manager government, in part because of the pension fraud and mismanagement that had been actively abetted by past city managers. Within a decade, San Diego has gone from being the poster child for how not to run a pension system to a city known for its pension-reform leadership. This could not have happened without the change from council-manager to strong-mayor.
Of course, not all mayors are reformers, and council-manager government has its virtues. But when a crisis does arise, political leadership is needed much more than professional expertise. City managers' capacity for political leadership is limited. They can't offend the elected officials who act as their bosses. Mayors can make their case directly to the public, through elections and initiatives.
American cities are in trouble today, and politicians are to blame for much of it. But cities should resist calls to "trust the experts." Only politicians can save us now.
Stephen D. Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership and regular contributor on PublicSectorInc.org.