IT IS A CENTRAL tenet of government in the United States: A legislative branch, made up of district representatives, writes the laws, a chief executive, elected by everybody, implements the laws, and a judiciary, independent of politics, enforces the laws and keeps the other two branches from overstepping their authority.
This separation of powers provides the most practical way to balance the American desire to empower both the majority and its many minorities. A committee can make the compromises that actually improve the process of lawmaking, but it can’t effectively run a government. An individual can effectively run a government, but he’ll have a tough time trying to reach a compromise with himself.
Even South Carolina, the Legislative State, acknowledges the model, although not to the extent it should.
In many cities, though, there is only a legislative branch. That might work when there’s not a lot to do, when it doesn’t really matter how quickly things get done, or how forcefully.
It might even work if the members of the legislative branch voluntarily agree to act as though they have a strong-mayor system and go along with operational decisions the mayor makes — something supporters of the current no-executive system suggest could be done in Columbia if only the City Council would do it.
But lacking that — as we are and seem likely to be for the foreseeable future — this model renders it virtually impossible for policy to be implemented in a timely and effective fashion.
It also makes it impossible for the public to tell who’s to blame when things go wrong, because they can’t tell who’s pulling the strings to make sure things get done — or to make sure things don’t get done.
Status quo defenders say this problem could be overcome by prohibiting City Council members from interfering with the way the city manager handles day-to-day affairs. That certainly can help, and in fact the Columbia City Council has forbidden its members to order other city employees around. But as important a reform as that was, it didn’t change the fact that individual council members can deal directly and behind the scenes with their direct employee, the city manager, to make sure things happen or don’t happen.
You’d still have such politicking if the mayor was the chief executive, perhaps even more. But it would be between council members and an elected mayor, not between council members and a manager who works for them, and who knows he can get fired if he doesn’t please enough of them.
Critics who say going to a strong mayor would create a dictator are grossly overstating the case, but they do point to one legitimate flaw in the strong-mayor model that is currently available in South Carolina: The mayor gets to act as both executive and legislator. It would be like having a president who also got to cast votes in the U.S. Senate.
A better model, available in several other states but not here, would have the mayor serve solely as executive. It’s a change the Legislature should make. But as long as lawmakers aren’t willing to make that change, having the mayor cast a vote and serve as mayor is far better than having a bureaucrat who answers to seven different bosses serve in the role that the public associates with the title of “mayor.”