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.