Strong mayor system offers checks, balances

Some on the Colorado Springs, Colo., City Council are openly confused about their roles under the executive-mayor form of government. The issue arose several times two weeks ago as councilors marked up Mayor Steve Bach’s proposed budget. Tensions had arisen weeks earlier, after Bach unilaterally fired Police Chief Richard Myers and then eliminated red-light ticketing cameras and sobriety checkpoints.

Councilman Scott Hente complained that Council should have been consulted regarding such major decisions.

Councilors are confused, perhaps, because their city has historically been governed under a system that minimized checks on the power of the legislative branch. No more.

Before voters enacted a strong-mayor system last November, the only entity that resembled an executive branch — the position of city manager — was controlled entirely by the legislative branch. Council hired, fired and supervised the executive. Meanwhile, a big part of the executive’s work involved winning and maintaining the favor of Council. Successful city managers were able to manipulate the legislative branch. As a result, too many decisions favored city bureaucracy; too few accounted for the interests or desires of the governed. City managers did not answer to voters. One even spited the public with a sinister public relations campaign.

Imagine the United States with a system of governance similar to what Colorado Springs had. President Barack Obama would be an employee of Congress, which could easily fire him. Obama would not answer to the people of the United States. Instead, he would answer to a Congress composed mostly of people who answer to small districts of constituents. For all intents and purposes, the executive and legislative branches of government would be one. The president would achieve his goals only by schmoozing members of an all-powerful Congress. No branch of government would answer to all people of the United States. Government would be even more self serving than it is today, with few checks and balances to protect the interests of the governed.

We often hear Americans refer to their president as “leader of the free world.” It’s a ridiculous notion. He isn’t even leader of the United States. He heads the executive branch of government, which has no more discernible authority than the legislative or judicial branches of government. Power and responsibility are divided in order that Americans are never subject to the whims of maniacs who may get elected or appointed. Progress is slow and decisions almost always involve compromise.

Today we have a similar design in Colorado Springs. Mayor Bach is not the leader of Colorado Springs. He is the leader of one branch of government with limited power that is roughly similar to the power of city council. Members of council comprise a separate branch of government with power that’s roughly proportional to that of the executive branch. This limited authority goes a long way toward preventing Mayor Bach from too many unilateral decisions. The limited authority of Council has already been used, for better or worse, to deprive the mayor of discretionary funds he had included in his budget proposal.

Local, state and federal courts possess limited authority to keep the decisions of city council and the mayor in check. Voters did not create new power when they established the executive-mayor system. They divided existing authority.

When councilors complain about their newfound lack of control, or when they squabble with the major, it means the new system is working. It is keeping politicians in check by balancing power in the interests of the public.