Oak Harbor Councilmember Tara Hizon was right on the money when she recently suggested that the city should explore changing the city’s form of government.
State law provides for two essential forms of government for municipalities — mayor-council and council-manager. Under the former, an elected mayor acts as the chief administrative officer and the council is the legislative body; under the latter, an elected council is responsible for policymaking while a hired city administrator runs the administration.
While Oak Harbor technically has a mayor-council form of government, it is one of many municipalities that evolved into what the Municipal Research and Service Center describes as a “hybrid city administrator system.”
Under this model, the city retains a separately elected mayor who is responsible for administration but also has a city manager who runs the day-to-day operations of the city.
Depending on your point of view, it’s either the best or worst of both worlds.
It’s certainly the most expensive form of government since these cities are paying both the mayor and a city administrator, as well as all the department managers, for providing administration. In Oak Harbor, the part-time mayor earns about $55,000 a year and the city administrator’s annual salary is about $150,000. In addition, they both qualify for the city’s expensive health insurance.
The mayor-council form, also known as a strong mayor, is the most popular in the state and is based on the traditional national and state models of government, with a clear separation of powers. A mayor is a highly visible leader and may be seen as being more responsive to the public.
On the other hand, some people think the flavor of government gives too much power to a single leader who may try to control information available to the council. Also, the skills needed to win elections aren’t necessarily the skills necessary to be a good administrator.
Cities that have changed forms of government in the last 50 years have nearly all moved to the council-manager style, which is seen as more professional and less political. After all, it’s the way corporations are run. The council can vote at any time to remove the administrator, limiting the danger of abuse of power.
Of course, the form of government has its critics. It gives a lot of power to someone who isn’t elected and, therefore, is less accountable to the public. In addition, smaller cities and those known for political troubles may have trouble attracting quality administrators.
Unfortunately, Oak Harbor has had its share of political foofaraws in the last decade as council members and mayors butt heads, most recently related to a vote of no confidence in the city administrator. There is a built-in tension that wouldn’t exist under a council-manager form of government.
It may not be a perfect solution, but it’s one worth exploring. With three new council members coming onboard, it’s a good time to take a look at the fundamentals of city governance.