The following article is taken from the December 2009 issue of the Main Street Journal. Click “Subscribe Online” above to start your subscription.
On the River: How Many Mayors Are We Electing?
By: Michael Roy Hollihan
Memphis and Shelby County have just endured two trials by election to install new, temporary mayors. In both cases, an individual was elected to the office and in both cases each immediately told the public that they were appointing numerous “task forces” and “transition teams” to tackle problems or to aid in the running of the government as the new mayors reconstituted the bureaucratic whole.
New interim County Mayor Joe Ford even announced the evening he was elected that he was creating seven transition teams! What for and why, he hasn’t yet explicated, but the news generated little reaction.
Of course, such groups of citizen-experts aren’t uncommon. Readers of a certain age may recall the days of “blue ribbon” committees, formed to deal with some problem deemed dangerous to the community. But such creatures were once uncommon, for situations far beyond the grasp of one executive official or legislative body.
These new task forces and transition teams are ad hoc, formed simply to authorize “expertise” and distribute decision-making for the elected mayor. They answer only to him and wield his power at an arm’s length distance. They serve to give plausible rejectability to a mayor’s responses.
Has government changed so much in just a few decades? Is such a diffusion of power and responsibility healthy? Or is it a way for mayors to insulate themselves? To blame not their grip on the rudder of the ship of State, but the gloves that protect their hands?
As the Daily News recently put it, the Wharton style is: “Find and assemble a local team of experts, give them a mission and begin a dialogue with them.” What about addressing the problem instead?
The day after he was elected City mayor A C Wharton was suddenly confronted by the crisis at the Memphis Animal Shelter. Mayor Wharton’s response was to fire the director of the shelter and suspend operations there. In keeping with a post-Herenton theme he’s adopted, he installed web-enabled, streaming cameras there so the public could feel invested in a solution.
And then he announced a special task force to study the situation and make recommendations.
One problem, though. There’s already an Advisory Board in place for the Shelter. Their job is to oversee operations — to, in effect, do on a daily basis what the task force is doing on a one-time basis. Members of the Board complained shortly after the creation of the task force that there was blurring and clashing of their oversight roles.
That board failed its job and instead of being replaced it is temporarily supplanted. When the task force’s job is done, we are told, the board will be returned to authority with the recommendations of the advisory task force (stamped with the approval of Wharton) as their new brief. Why not simply replace the failed board and go from there?
The City of Memphis has 25 boards and commissions, comprising hundreds of people. Many people serve across several boards, though, because there simply aren’t enough folks in Memphis willing to serve. Or so we are told. There are 29 joint City / County boards and commissions as well. That’s a lot of people operating on behalf of the mayor.
That’s also a vast pool in which to dilute the power of a mayor. The strongest joints are when muscle attaches directly to bone. The strongest effect a mayor can have is directly on those subordinate to him. Diverting power to boards, commissions, transition teams and task forces which then exercise power or make decisions in the mayor’s name is a recipe for sluggish and non-responsive government. Not unlike the lumbering behemoth that Memphis labors under.
Look at the Summer Youth Employment Program. When problems with paychecks for the students surfaced, attention focused on the office that hired them. Further examination showed that the Youth Services Office itself had been woefully unprepared for that’s summer’s boom in jobs. And so pressure was brought to bear on the Director, Sara Lewis, who resigned.
Perhaps Mayor Wharton can be persuaded to be more direct with his exercise of the executive. Vest power in the individuals who wield it, who then answer directly to him or the people under him. Draw straight, connecting lines on the flow chart, which consequently means giving responsibility to those in office, picking people who can be trusted to wield it. We can all benefit from the responsive, direct government that follows.