Charter Changes for the Mayor of Toledo

. August 9, 2016.

Toledo City Council is currently considering some changes to the Toledo City Charter. In our estimation, they don’t accomplish the kind of change needed to make lasting improvements in the quality of city leadership. In the last column we offered suggestions for substantive charter changes that would have a significant impact on city council.

As promised, in this column we shift our focus to the office of Mayor, Granted, it is difficult being the nominal face of an entire sprawling city bureaucracy. The task is so thankless that few venture into the fray. Some lay the blame for failed administrations on the shift, now more than two decades old, from a city manager structure to a strong mayor system. Since that change only one mayor has been re-elected to a second consecutive term. Carty won re-election in nineteen ninety-seven by a slim margin over Nick Wichowski, a gravestone salesman never heard from in politics before or since.

We are convinced that the fundamental flaw in the new system is that the mayor’s seat now combines the old position of city manager, the behind-the-scenes pencil pusher who keeps the system functioning, with the expectation that the mayor will be a dynamic cheerleader for the city. It has been impossible to find such a superhero. Instead we’ve had effective figureheads, like Carty and Mike Bell, or good managers, like Jack Ford and Paula Hicks-Hudson. What we haven’t found is anyone who can combine the policy with the pizzazz.

Rather than keep looking for the impossible, our proposals de-link the mayor from the manager, while keeping the strong mayor structure. Here is our five-point plan for revamping the mayor’s seat.

1. Change the position of City Auditor from an appointed to an elected position. Currently the City Auditor is appointed by City Council. They supposedly then keep an active watch over the finances of the city. This includes auditing the functions of the finance department, which serves at the behest of the mayor. The structure puts the auditor and the finance department on opposite sides of city government.

Instead the auditor should be truly independent, providing financial analysis on behalf of the citizens rather than either branch of government. This would be accomplished by making the position an elected rather than an appointed position. The auditor could then provide unbiased accounting of city finances to the mayor that Toledoans could trust. 

2. Likewise, change the position of City Law Director from an appointed to an elected position. Currently the Law Director is appointed by the Mayor with confirmation by Council. But the Mayor can summarily dismiss the Law Director on a whim. In order to provide legal opinions that are independent and in service to the citizens, the Law Director should be elected. 

If both these positions were brought out from under the taint of politics, the mayor, and all Toledoans, could better trust their advice. 

3. Create an appointed Inspector General position with “just cause” protection. This position would be appointed initially, but would not serve at the whim of the Mayor. They could only be removed for cause, meaning they would continue in their position as long as they worked competently and diligently. This would remove the politics from the position. The Inspector General should be given broad and far-reaching oversight powers in the operation of the city. The IG would audit city departments and provide performance reports in an ongoing basis. This would free the Mayor from the oversight function, and allow the mayor’s position to be less about daily management and more about leadership.

4. Eliminate artificial term limits. We said the same thing about City Council. If someone is doing a good job, they should keep it. If someone is not, let the voters make a change. All but one administration has been booted out after one term anyway. And we think if the other changes we have proposed here were enacted the voters could be more satisfied and less skeptical about our elected leadership, because independent, unbiased information would be forthcoming.

5. Last, and perhaps most controversial, we should abandon the sham of nonpartisan primaries and expand the field of candidates by enacting partisan primaries for Mayor. We all know that political parties play a prominent role in our political process. Let’s just admit it and make the primaries for Mayor partisan. That is, all recognized parties should have their own primaries to determine their candidates. Independents would also be allowed to run, but wouldn’t need a primary. This would ensure that a Republican candidate would appear on the ballot, as well as candidates from legitimate third parties. The current system, in which the primary field is winnowed to the top two, has regularly shut out such candidates. It would also eliminate the need for Republicans to pretend they are “Independents” to make it through the primary in largely Democratic Toledo. 

Partisan primaries would result in a broader debate leading into the general election, a broader field of choices for voters, and would likely attract a better field of candidates. The drawback is that the general election results would be watered down, and it is likely the winner would not receive a majority of votes cast. We think that risk is worth the rewards.

There you have it. A bold new era of Toledo leadership could be on the horizon. If we have the guts to make it happen.