Blog: Kirk Westphal

Banks and offices are the buzz-kill of downtowns. Know why? Urban documentary filmmaker Kirk Westphal, founder of Westphal Associates, gives his view on this and other reasons why folks will do a hard stop and head no further down the block.

Post 2: It's okay―I napped through Civics too

Recently, I had a great time producing an educational video with a group of folks who are full-on committed to making sure your community looks awesome and runs well. And they watch your property tax dollars like hawks. (And yes, my renter friends, you pay property taxes through your rent, so listen up!) I also have to say, these dedicated men and women have one of the most unpredictable jobs north of a NASCAR driver.

Who are these people? Your friendly neighborhood city managers!

Cities (and other municipalities) in this country basically have one of two forms of local government structure: either the strong mayor form or the council-manager form (which, in an attempt to confuse you, is also called the city manager form). The two forms have radically different organizational charts that dictate the roles, relationships and decision making among all the elected officials and professional staff of a city. This is extremely important because just as, say, a building will perform well or poorly over its lifetime depending on the strength of its foundation and the quality of its materials, a government or any other organization needs a solid structure at its core. And the quality of this structure directly impacts the quality of the people who will work in it and how productive they will be.

For this reason, more cities in the US today use the council-manager form of government than the strong mayor form. When new municipalities are formed, most opt for the council-manager form; it's considered a "model" form of local government. Because of their age and tradition, many of the largest cities in the country use the strong mayor form: New York, LA, Chicago. But many large cities also use the council-manager form, like Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas. (Fun Michigan fact: the three largest strong mayor cities are Detroit, Warren and Flint; the three largest council-manager cities are Grand Rapids, Sterling Heights and Ann Arbor.)

The council-manager form was born in the early 1900s in a response to rampant corruption in local politics. The reformers figured that a more business-like model would root out corruption, and it did! Instead of a popularly-elected mayor becoming the CEO of a city -- the person in charge of staff and the budget -- if a city chose to use the council-manager form, the elected city council would hire the CEO. The CEO in a city is called the city manager. This process is considered more business-like because the council, which is akin to a board of directors of a corporation or nonprofit, can go out and look for the best candidate for the job, someone who has been trained how to run a city. (The citizens of a strong mayor city get their CEO, the mayor, based on a popularity contest, which based on recent events not too far from here doesn't necessarily guarantee that the winner be properly trained or ethical. You're vastly less likely to have corruption in a council-manager system.)

Do cities ever change their form of government? Sometimes, but it's a big deal to do this: there's an elaborate procedure to "open up" the city's charter and tinker with it. Which leads me to my only (direct) request for you to click on something in this post: there's an excellent 4-minute video that explains the differences between these forms, produced by a city that ended up changing from strong mayor to council-manager at the top of this page. (And if you just can't get your fill of this local government stuff, by all means click on the image of yours truly just below that one and watch my brand-new video on the council-manager form, or go directly to it here. You'll see a slew of Michigan's local government celebrities, as well as my on-camera debut within the first couple of minutes!)

So this is where I tell you we need to change our form of government, right? Thankfully, no. The good citizens of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, at least, can relax: our charters are up to snuff when it comes to government structure. (Well, for the most part -- get in touch if you really want to talk more. But fair warning: I might try to get you on board to eliminate local partisan elections, publicly fund campaigns, and re-establish instant runoff voting while we're at it.)

So if we're all set, why am I still talking about this?

Because I sometimes wonder if we're taking full advantage of what our form of government affords us. For example, while hiring a qualified CEO and staff trained in gathering information and making sound recommendations has obvious direct benefits to a city in terms of quality of decisions, an equally valuable downstream impact is that our elected representatives should be allowed to focus on higher-order questions. What are the values of my constituents? What types of policies should I initiate that align with those values? Has the city manager and staff been effectively implementing those policies using best practices? Have we evaluated the cost effectiveness of these policies and of all operations relative to other cities? In short, it means freeing up our citizen officials from the thicket of micromanagement and giving them more time to look at the Big Picture; more about creating a bold vision for the community, less about getting into the weeds of how to get there.

In theory, this arrangement should also allow for a broad cross section of the community to participate on city council. I suspect we could do more to cultivate excitement around this opportunity and see if there are unnecessary hurdles to serving.

But if you're like me, after you're convinced that the council-manager form is good for local government, the troubling questions begin: Isn't the council-manager form of government really just a parliament writ small? And if it's more effective than the strong mayor system, which happens to mirror the structure of state and federal systems, is it treasonous to suggest that they may not be the most effective options either? (Yikes, just don't look here to see the company we keep when it comes to the presidential system.) Once you've got your ear to the ground about this, turns out there are plenty of rabble rousers out there. Some folks did a pretty thorough thrashing of our system and wrote a book about it. This article sums it up nicely. Even the World Bank has taken pot-shots: "Presidential systems, as opposed to parliamentary systems, raise the probability of high levels of corruption" (source). Considering our troubling worldwide standing on some measures, should we really be surprised that things at the top haven't been working for a long time?

Bringing it back to the home front, I think we're doing a good job given the circumstances. Local governments arguably impact their citizens more directly than all other levels of government combined, and relative to other communities and regions, I'd say we can be proud. But I'm equally convinced there's always room to do better. And we can't do it without a mighty army of engaged citizens: from those who help out on their neighborhood boards, take time to speak with the Mayor and their ward representatives, serve on commissions, or run for council. I've found my volunteer experience with the city to be among my most rewarding, and I'm grateful for the opportunity. It's a big tent and an uncertain future. Will you play a role?