Monday, January 23, 2012

The Balance of Power

The constant fight over the role of the mayor and the role of the city council is an old fight started back in 1995. Each mayor has chafed against a city council who has wanted to be more involved in the administration of city government than the city charter allows.

When the new form of government was effective in 1995, the city attorney held many training/educational sessions on the city charter and the roles of government. When a new councilor took office, orientation sessions were held giving newly elected officials background and history regarding this new form of government.

As years progressed, people left and orientation sessions regarding the city charter and the mayor and council roles went by the wayside. Pretty soon, the "old" experts on the city charter were gone and everyone was pretty much left to their own ideas on who should be doing what and what the roles of the mayor and the city council should be.

Over the years, the city council has crept into the executive and administrative role of the mayor. It is easy for people to bicker about the roles government by engaging in the personalities of mayors and city councilors when those personalities lend to the debate. But when we allow personalities into the debate, it clouds what the city charter says each branch of government should be responsible for. When the mayor and councilors cannot get along, that dislike or irritation flows over into the roles of each branch of government and pushes one branch to create ordinances to encroach on the powers of the other branch.

That's what has been happening since this form of government took effect in 1995 and it will probably continue to be an ongoing source of discontentment and encroachment of power.

The city charter is clear.

Section 2.01. General powers and duties.
All powers of the city shall be vested in the city council, except as otherwise provided by law or this charter, and the council shall provide for the exercise thereof and for the performance of all duties and obligations imposed on the city by law. The council shall act as a part-time, policy making and legislative body, avoiding management and administrative issues.

Section 3.01. Executive power.
The executive and administrative power of the city shall be vested in a mayor.

The mayor oversees the employees. The council establishes a personnel system by ordinance. The mayor prepares the budget. The council holds public hearings on the budget and approves the budget by ordinance. The mayor prepares the 5 year capital program and the council approves the capital program. The council approves the appropriations for the budget. The council has the authority to amend the budget and the appropriations. In other words, the council has the purse strings. The council has the final say on taxpayer money and how it should be spent. It says so in the city charter.

But the council wants to get involved in the day to day business - the management and administrative side of the city government. So says, the mayors.  And so the arguments and the grabs for power continue.

The city council has certainly expanded it's branch of government far beyond the "part-time, policy making and legislative body, avoiding management and administrative issues" by creating an administrative department of their own. They have added staff beyond the "city clerk" operation of managing the official records of the city. The council has created an Audit division of 3 employees, a budget analyst and now a legislative and operations manager. They now have executive and administrative power of various appointive and civil service employees of their own. The question is, does the city charter allow for this expansion of power?

The city attorney, as the legal officer of the city is the true gatekeeper. If the city attorney sides with the mayor, the council says the city attorney is in the pocket of the mayor. If the city attorney were to side with the council, the mayor would view it as betrayal. Yet, it is the city attorney who carries the ultimate authority regarding the power roles of each branch of local government. And if the city attorney cannot be neutral or unbiased and preserve and interpret the general powers and duties of the city council and the executive power of mayor, then you will have the continued bickering about the power roles of the mayor and the city council.

Both branches of government are guilty of mudding up the city charter and wanting the language to change to better empower their positions. The power to govern is already there. Instead of trying to grab more power, both branches need to just do their job as the citizens elected them to do and quite coveting the other's power.

It's a balance of power. The City Charter recognizes the balance of power. I wish the elected officials would do the same and the city attorney would do his job.


  1. Thank you, Jennifer, for the most concise explanation of this issue. It is unfortunate that the ill will between the Council and the Mayor keep the City from operating in a smooth, professional manner. All involved need to stop posturing and pontificating. Sometimes it seems there are so many egos in the room that it is a wonder the Council chambers don't self-combust!

    If Sioux Falls really "has a good thing going", then let's keep it going--not grinding to halt because of petty arguments. If elementary students acted like this, they would have to miss recess--or better yet, get a good spanking!

  2. The city attorney in the Munson administration was a joke. He never fulfilled his job responsibilities. The city attorney in Huether's adminisration is Huether's "man" and we all know what happens when you cross Huether so you know he hasn't and isn't going to do his job either. Pathetic! This position should not be a political appointment if the City Attorney is the true gate keeper of the city charter.

    1. Right on. You cannot have the fox watching the chicken coop!!