State law dictates that the mayor of a third-class city shall be the presiding officer of the city council. This is astounding. Consider what you would think if Donald Trump served as both the president of the United States and the speaker of the House in Congress.
As presiding officer, the mayor in these cities gets to set the legislative agenda for the city council. He runs their meetings. My city has compounded this error by giving the mayor power to pick and choose which council members get assigned to which committees. In other words, the mayor can reward council members who agree with him by assigning them to the most influential committees, i.e., the fiscal affairs committee, and punish those who don’t by assigning them to the less desirable committees. The biggest check-and-balance the council has over the mayor is power of the purse. But today the mayor can circumvent it by packing the fiscal affairs committee with his buddies.
State law also hands third-class mayors the power to appoint a huge number of people to boards and commissions. In my city the mayor appoints all members of the board of works (approves all city contracts), park and recreation board, economic development commission, housing authority, downtown revitalization advisory commission and Sugar Creek Natural Park advisory commission.
And the mayor appoints a controlling majority on the planning commission, board of zoning appeals, utility service board and redevelopment commission. He appoints every department head. He also has the power to suspend or remove any city officer, deputy or employee (IC 36-4-11-2). All this power is in one man’s hands. It gives a mayor incredible influence over every city appointee, officer, department head, deputy, employee and contractor. (It’s worth noting that the president of our county commission is also a city employee.)
So how do we fix it? Again, in the American tradition the city council would be independent of the mayor. The council president should preside over the council. The council should assign its members to its committees. The committee members should elect their own chairmen. In the American tradition, the council would have equal power as the mayor, and would have checks and balances over the mayor.
The mayor would nominate his department heads, but their actual appointments should be approved by the council. The council, since its members represent the different wards of the city, should appoint the majority on boards and commissions, not the mayor. But the mayor should retain his present veto power over council legislation to keep his check over the city council.
Some will complain that this would make government in the smaller cities inefficient and bogged down. Yes, that’s true, but typically the most efficient government is the one most dangerous to the liberties of its citizens.
John Pickerill, a resident of Crawfordsville and past chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, is a graduate of Purdue University and the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, Pickerill retired from the U.S. Navy with the rank of Commander.