Hot issue needs clear and critical thinking

A proposal to change Duluth's form of government should be considered only with great introspection on the part of its citizens. Although a change could be reversed later, it isn't likely to happen for many decades to come. For that reason, there...

A proposal to change Duluth's form of government should be considered only with great introspection on the part of its citizens.

Although a change could be reversed later, it isn't likely to happen for many decades to come.

For that reason, there has to be critical and clear thinking in the process. That process could be mired in clouded thinking if personalities and grudge matches consume the debate. This is what happened in Dallas, Texas, in 2005.

The people of Dallas convinced themselves that a proposed move from city manager-weak council to the Strong Mayor format was a referendum on the mayor, Laura Miller. Nothing would shake them out of that line of thinking. Mayor Miller is not well-liked in the city, especially by minorities. She was a no-punches-pulled news reporter who covered the city council during the tenure of the previous mayor, and later found herself in the mayor's seat with that same council. You can imagine how well things went from there.

About a year before the Strong Mayor initiative, the Dallas Morning News published a comprehensive series, "Dallas at the Tipping Point," which pointed out a number of perceptions about what was going on at city hall. A former city manager said "nobody wants the ball," and a history professor felt "there's no sense of where we're going. No one's really in charge." The paper's polls showed citizens thought they had little influence upon city council decisions and that city hall had been engulfed by corruption and a lack of vision.


A petition put the Strong Mayor question on the ballot, with the blessing of Mayor Miller. The measure was defeated. Minorities believed the Strong Mayor system would have lessened their representation. Coincidentally, the NAACP in San Jose, Calif. has been wanting to start a Strong Mayor initiative there.

Recently, a number of cities in the country have changed to Strong Mayor. In San Diego, it was adopted as an emergency in a 2004 election. City hall was in a financial mess that triggered a federal investigation, had a computer system that could kindly be described as antiquated and entangled, and had elected officials who were convicted of federal corruption charges.

In Richmond, Virginia, voters overwhelmingly approved a change to Strong Mayor in 2003. Their first Strong Mayor, former governor L. Douglas Wilder said that he would not have run for the job in the 2004 election if it hadn't been a Strong Mayor position.

An article in the June 2005 issue of "Governing" magazine quoted a Richmond city councilor: "You name the category -- public health, education, employment, the economy -- we were hurting and the leadership had not addressed it. No one was accountable. The mayor was saying, 'Well, under the statute I preside over meetings and cut ribbons'; the manager was not required to respond to any citizen or citizen issue; and the council was in a situation where you couldn't get three council members to agree on what was for lunch, let alone set benchmarks and hold the manager to those benchmarks."

One has to grasp that the title "mayor" has true meaning only in the Strong Mayor form of government. A "mayor" who is just another council member is someone holding a gavel and a title only. That title implies leadership ability and powers, but in reality, the appointed, not elected city manager is the one who holds the most cards. There are also cities where the "mayor" is a ceremonial title given by the council. They decide among themselves who will be "mayor," not the voters.

I'd also like to make these short points:

At-large council seats. They're necessary because they keep a check-and-balance on the council seats that are district-based. Those councilors are responsible to their districts, while at-large councilors' actions are supposed to have the city as a whole in mind. In district (ward) systems where there are no at-large seats, those councilors can run little kingdoms and trade votes to benefit only their district.

A Strong Mayor is a stakeholder. The mayor will be a resident of Duluth. The city manager doesn't have to be.


The search process for a city manager. It can be expensive and can occur more often than one would like. Take St. Louis County for example: No county administrator has been in the job for more than five years and there were long periods where the job was filled by an interim choice. The commissioners also had problems choosing candidates they could agree on to hire.

It's vital that knee-jerk reactions to dropping the Strong Mayor-weak council format don't overtake a reasoned outlook of long-term vision. Our society on so many levels lacks long-term vision. This debate is not about present or past

mayors. We have yet to hear a presentation as to why this change is needed.

Bryan Olson is a native Duluthian now living in Falcon Heights, Minn. Even though he's moved away, he enjoys keeping up with Northland politics. This is Olson's third guest column on the strong mayor/city manager issue.

News to use

The city's Charter Commission appointed a committee to research alternative forms of city government and attempt to determine whether Duluth needs to pursue such a change. The sub-committee plans to invite a number of experts to speak on the topic at future meetings, as well as gather public input on the subject. The first sub-committee meeting is tentatively set for late January (look in future issues of the Budgeteer for dates). All meetings are open to the public.

Want to know more?

Go online to and look for the "Strong Mayor/City Manager collection. There you will find previous Budgeteer columns and letters on the subject plus links to other pertinent articles.

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