Open Government Project
A Government Watchdog Group
State of Texas
City of Galveston
Public Interest Groups
How Much Real Improvement is Possible?
by David Stanowski
07 May 2010
Many voters in this city are cautiously optimistic that with a new Mayor and the possibility of an improved Council; the City may have a chance to reverse its long decline. However, since the election has no effect on the City Manager and his staff, who actually run this city; how much real improvement is possible?
The Founding Fathers made it very clear that the form of government that they chose was critical to our success. The people serving were obviously important, too, but with the wrong form of government; there was less chance of success.
Their Constitutional Republic included a strong Chief Executive (President) to manage the government. They made sure that the most powerful person in the government was elected by the people, so he was directly accountable to the voters. The States also chose their Chief Executive (Governor) by a vote of the people to provide the same level of accountability. This form of government made it easy for voters to express their approval or disapproval for the overall operation of government by voting for or against the President or Governor.
It is difficult to understand why so many cities abandoned this basic principle. Many years ago, a theory was developed that it is better to have a “professionally trained” and unelected City Manager as a Chief Executive, so now the majority of U.S. cities no longer elect their CEO. The argument was that City Managers are “not subject to political pressures and influences”. However, what was overlooked in this rush to switch to the City Manager form of government is the fact that you want your Chief Executive to be subject to “political pressure” by having a need to keep the voters happy in order to keep his job. If the most powerful person in city government does not answer to the voters; who do they answer to?
In theory, city council, and in some cities this may seem to work fairly well. However, the structural weakness in this form of government becomes very obvious in a city like Galveston with a weak City Council. Much has been made during the current campaign over the fact that the last three Councils did not even have the resolve to give the City Manager a performance review. However, even if they had; would it have been anything more then an automatic approval? Do Galveston’s part-time unpaid Councilmembers have the knowledge, experience, and wherewithal to provide the necessary oversight for a well-entrenched full-time well-paid City staff that has far more resources at their disposal?
For this city to have a real chance at turning itself around it needs far more than a Council election. The City must switch to a strong-mayor form of government where the City’s Chief Executive is elected by the people. In addition, Councilmembers should be elected from fewer districts, with some at-large seats, and the Councilmembers and the Mayor need to be paid reasonable salaries in order to create a bigger pool of candidates.