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  Active or Passive City Council?
December 7, 2003

One of the enduring debates on the Richmond City Council involves the respective roles of the city council and the “staff,” most of who work for the city manager. I have always been an advocate for a strong and proactive city council that takes a leadership role in making public policy. I am not sure that my colleagues share my enthusiasm for that approach.


A good example of this occurred at the December 2, 2003, Richmond City Council meeting apropos to an item that received comparably little debate – at least compared to the number of lanes allocated to the Richmond Silver Dolphins Swim Team. I had placed on the agenda a resolution directing the City Manager to research and report back in 90 days the feasibility of using benefit assessment districts as a method of financing various city services in order to alleviate Richmond’s chronic budget shortfalls. I had been discussing this with several city administrators for over a year, and I was promised both verbally and in emails that the research would be accomplished and a report rendered to the City Council. Of course, it was not done, and here we are facing layoffs and reductions in critical city services.


Not entirely trusting informal commitments from staff, I wanted to make the benefit assessment study a formal public policy direction by the City Council. The motion died for lack of a second. One council member protested that benefit assessments constituted inherently regressive taxes and refused to pursue the matter further – with or without a study. The others hung back, presumably because staff told them that the issue would be considered and a report rendered at some future date – the same thing I was told well over a year ago. This is indicative of a long tradition on the City Council to demonstrate extreme reluctance to formally pursue or adopt policy directives when there is any indication from staff that the subjects will be taken up. Sometimes they are, but more often they are relegated to the bottom of someone’s file. It is almost as if the City Council is fearful of offending staff.


Turning to the Silver Dolphins, in another contentious discussion there was a debate over the terms and extent of use of the Richmond Swim Center by a youth swim team, the Richmond Silver Dolphins. Part of the debate included what I considered important public policy issues, such as whether non-Richmond residents should pay more for the use of the pool, whether the only organized athletic swimming program for Richmond youth should be able to expand or not and whether or not there was flexibility in scheduling to accommodate all users. I was roundly condemned by my colleagues for meddling in administrative issues, invoking the dreaded M-word, “micromanaging.” When things are going smoothly with the administration of Richmond’s services, I have no desire to meddle, but when one swimming pool is closed and rotting away, another is being fought over by potential users, and the city administration cannot even tell me what it costs to operate it, then it’s time for the City Council to stand up and take some responsibility for public policy.


The current budget crisis will apparently be solved by massive layoffs. The selection of service curtailment was made across the board by the City Manager, allocated generally 10 percent to each department, except those departments substantially self-supported by cost recovery fee provisions. As the public debate about libraries, recreation and public safety cuts continues, the City Council has not weighed in on these critical policy issues. The City Council has set no priorities for cuts, simply accepting management’s recommendations.


Legally, the respective roles of council and manager are defined by the City of Richmond Charter, which was adopted in 1909. Article III of the Charter granted all governing powers to the City Council, and Article IV, which amended the Charter by election in 1953, defined the role of the City Manager as the “chief executive officer and the head of the administrative branch of the City government.”


As background, the council-manager government, first adopted by Dayton, Ohio in 1913, is one of two main variations of representative municipal government in the United States.[1] In the council-manager form of government, a council is responsible for making policy, passing ordinances, voting appropriations, and supervising the government. City council policy is made and documented primarily through ordinances and resolutions. In such a government, a mayor typically performs strictly ceremonial duties or will act as a member and presiding officer of the council. In Richmond, the elected mayor has additional prescribed responsibilities described in Article III-A of the Charter, added by an election in 1980.


In the council-manager form of government, the council hires a manager or administrator who is responsible for supervising government operations, according to the pleasure of the council. The city manager is also responsible for preparing and administering an executive budget.


The council-manager system of government entirely abandons the system of checks and balances of most state governments and of the federal government, placing all power into the hands of the legislative branch. This system of government is used in the majority of American cities with populations over 25,000. More than a third of America's communities currently operate under the council-manager form of government. In the State of California, there are nearly 500 cities of which more than 400 are the council-manager form.  Interestingly, 81% of managers report that they dominate the legislature; raising the question of who is in charge and the possibility that council-manager governments are actually, not legislative, but rather executive.[2]


There appear to be two schools of thought on the Richmond City Council about the respective roles of the legislative and executive branches. One subscribes to a passive city council, and the other subscribes to an active city council. Both acknowledge that the city council has “policy making” responsibility and authority, but they differ in how that is implemented.


In the passive city council model, the staff is looked on not only as the administrator of policy, but also the fountainhead of policy. In the passive city council model, the council primarily reacts to proposals brought forth by staff in the form of resolutions and ordinances, debating them and voting them up or down. In this model, staff is given substantial responsibility for suggesting priorities, strategic planning and visioning, as well as day-to-day operations.


In the active city council model, the city council sees itself as the source of major policy initiatives, much more like a state legislature or Congress. City council members are elected, presumably, because they have leadership qualities, possess vision and are more in touch with the will of the people than city administrators, many of whom have never even lived in Richmond. City council members generally outlast the terms of individual departments heads and even city managers, giving them a sense of continuity that spans the transient nature of administrators.


One impediment to the operation of an active city council is the lack of individual staff for city council members. Unlike state legislators, Congresspersons, or even county supervisors, Richmond city council members have no individual staff members who can be utilized to research and help prepare policy proposals. The only staff realistically available for such tasks works for the city manager or the city attorney.


I don’t really know whether the majority of Richmond residents expect their City Council members to be active or passive legislators. This continues to puzzle me.