In defense of Plan E

This past Tuesday, just 90 minutes before the Lowell City Council inauguration ceremony commenced, I appeared as a guest on WCAP to discuss past mayoral elections. Host Ted Panos eventually asked me about the process of selecting a mayor and about the mayor’s duties and responsibilities under the city’s Plan E Charter.

Based on my 46 years of observing the present system, often up close, I’m of the opinion that it works pretty well and ought not to be changed. Not everyone shares that opinion. Just the other day in a letter to the editor, John MacDonald (who was a candidate for city council in this just-past election) advocated the adoption of a strong mayor form of government similar to what now exists in Boston. Others have recently urged that the mayor’s duties and responsibilities remain as they are now but that the selection process be changed to mirror that in Worcester, where the mayor is elected directly by the voters and not as part of the city council. Still others propose that the top vote getter or the longest serving councilor who hasn’t already been mayor automatically gains the post.

Funny, but I don’t remember all these charter change suggestions in years in which the mayor is elected unanimously. It’s in years where there’s a tight race that folks start questioning the system, but it’s not just those who favor the unsuccessful mayoral aspirant who are the loudest advocates – although they’re often well-represented. There’s a reasonable concern that a divisive mayoral election on the council’s first day will generate animosity that will taint the entire term but the reality is that any council that can’t accept the will of the majority when it comes to electing a mayor and move on with the business of the council would soon find some other issue to divide it.

As for the powers of the mayor, I believe that those who advocate a switch to a strong mayor/no city manager form and those who say the mayor under our present system is “just ceremonial” both misunderstand the role and the power of the mayor (and the city council) under the Plan E form of government.

Councils in communities with strong mayors are exceedingly weak and, except for some budget setting matters, are often in search of a mission. The council in Lowell in contrast is quite powerful with week-to-week responsibilities. (And if the Lowell City Council was more assertive in its control of the offices of City Clerk and City Auditor as permitted by Plan E, the council would wield even greater power, but that’s another story). As the chair of a powerful council, the mayor exerts much influence over decisions, if only through things like subcommittee assignments and controlling the flow of council meetings.

But the mayor of Lowell is much more than the chair of the city council. The mayor automatically becomes a member of the school committee and is that body’s chair. Beyond that, however, being the chair of both elected bodies simultaneously makes the mayor the liaison between the two. No other person is in a position to coordinate and synchronize the efforts of city government and the public schools. It is along the boundaries of the “city side” and the “school side” that inefficiencies occur and opportunities are lost. A mayor who understands the job and exerts the power that accompanies the office can do much to improve that relationship for the benefit of all. Similarly, the mayor has tremendous power to shape the relationship of the city government/public schools combination with the businesses, non-profits, other government agencies, and individual residents that make up the city.

All of the above is not meant to diminish the importance of the office of the city manager, the single most important position in city government. My point is that there’s more to being mayor than cutting ribbons and speaking at testimonials – there’s a lot more with much of it intangible and not easy to quantify. It’s up to the person elected to the position by the other councilors to recognize and then exercise that power.

In 1969 the people of Lowell voted overwhelmingly for a charter commission that would recommend changes to the city’s form of government. Just two years later, however, the proposal to change the existing system was defeated by more than a 2 to 1 margin (22,172 “no” to 9088 “yes”). In 1993, a non-binding referendum asking if the city should have an elected strong mayor instead of an appointed city manager prevailed with 10,044 “yes” votes to 6760 “no” votes. Despite such a big win, nothing more ever happened – it was if no such referendum had ever been held.

So in two elections – 1969 and 1993 – the people voted for change to the charter but in both cases the charter stayed intact. Why? When you look at the overall results of both of those elections, it becomes clear that the people weren’t voting to change the charter, they were voting for change – period. In 1969, the voters elected five new councilors; in 1993, they elected six. Change came, but it came through the current system via the ballot box. To me, proposals to change our system of government are distractions. If you don’t like the way things are going – including who is elected mayor – change the council, don’t change the system.

7 Responses to In defense of Plan E

  1. Joe S says:

    Good post.

    As for – (And if the Lowell City Council was more assertive in its control of the offices of City Clerk and City Auditor as permitted by Plan E, the council would wield even greater power, but that’s another story).

    Item 25 of this week’s council agenda may be a step in that direction.
    25. M. Murphy/C. Mendonca – Req. Council amend meetings schedule to provide quarterly special meetings for Auditor, Clerk, and Manager.

  2. Mimi says:

    Great post. I find it interesting that the discussion for a “strong Mayor” elected by the people was raised only when it became apparent that our new Mayor will be Patrick Murphy. I do not recall anyone raising this issue during the election.

    I attended a few debates, heard the radio interviews, watch the Candidates on City Life, read the literature, followed them on facebook and not a single word.

    My suggestion to anyone who wants to make changes to the Charter, ask the City Council to go forward with the establishment of the charter commission (pushed by Jack Mitchell) so that we can begin the process of publicly discussing this and other issues pertaining to civic participation and full representation.

  3. Corey EricksonCoreyerickson says:

    Great post Dick… However charter change is the really the best way to modernize the laws that determine exactly how that council is elected. You may have missed Mayor Murphy then Councilor Murphy already tried a motion at charter change review. It’ll be interesting to see if it resurfaces or received in the eh-how-bout-not fashion it was previously. That I think says a little something about the strong mayor arguement. Many people lament lack of voter interest… confused however at those who reject efforts of it. I dare not tangle with your experience of observing the city but i’m sure we can agree antiquated municipal laws, the basis of some established before the Commonwealth itself often get in the way of expressing true public interest.

  4. Jack Mitchell says:

    Strong Mayor = “The squeaky wheels get the grease. And by grease, I mean OUR money. No thanks.

    At this time, the ‘will of the people’ is disproportionately influenced by folks with skin in the ‘city budget’ game. A Mayor, pandering to a voter base of 5,000, will be ethically weak.

    The Worcester model seems like a plausible step. Such a design could encourage more turnout. I would offer the Mayor a full time salary, in turn for services encompassing strategic visioning, public relations and constituent services. Have the Mayor partner with the CM, leaving the authority with the CM.

  5. DickH says:

    “Lack of voter interest” has a lot more to do with what goes on in the city the other 364 days per year and not the mechanism used to elect people on that 365th day. But getting people engaged is hard work; it’s easier to talk about changing the system. Bureaucracies often engage in what’s called “policy churn” – By constantly talking about changing the policy, you keep things in a state of flux and escape accountability. Advocates of charter change risk falling into that trap. If the effort spent on passing ballot initiatives was diverted to helping candidates, there’d be no need to change the charter.

    As for a separately elected mayor in a system that retains a city manager, I suppose that could work and there might be some benefits to it, but I have two immediate concerns. First is the one I express above – every ounce of energy devoted to changing the charter in some way is energy diverted from getting residents more engaged. Second, I assume that several strong candidates would run for mayor, thereby excluding all but the winner from service on the council. Under our current system, the unsuccessful candidate in the mayoral race is still on the council.

  6. Jack Mitchell says:

    I don’t see a discussion about charter change, which strains to engage Lowellians using several outreach prongs, will do harm. How could it be a ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ proposition?

    I am sensitive to the ‘policy churn’ aspect, but I would paint it more starkly. We need to make the discussion constructive with a goal in mind. The goal cannot be to simply gripe about how local government is flawed. Though ‘boo birds’ will arrive, it is preferred that such an enterprise does not become their special soapbox. Suffice to say, those that hate gov’t need a say in things, but not so much as to demoralize and distract.

    On the point of a separately elected Mayor, I don’t see a real impact on the losing candidates going home. First, if we offer a full time Mayor a liveable wage, 70K-80K, the pool of candidates will be very different. That is a brass ring that will attract folks that would not consider a 20K gig. Such, those vying for the job would step up thier civic engagement, likely increasing the pool of activism. Some will quit, being sore sports. But, the pool of wannabe Mayors should offset such loses.

    One concern I have of a Mayor* is the potential to overshadow the 8 Councilors. I assume the Blog of Record would engage in a ‘cult of personality’ approach to such a leader, allowing the others to wither without sunlight. Hmmmm, maybe that would be a plus? ;v)