The Editor's Desk

Fresno voters chose strong mayor system

When Fresno went to a strong-mayor form of government in 1997, it substantially changed the balance of power at City Hall. The mayor got broad authority by assuming control of city staff and the city manager.

That's what the voters intended when they approved the new system. They wanted someone accountable for all the problems at City Hall. At the time, city government had deteriorated into a dysfunctional mess led by a council that was dodging its responsibility. The mayor was only one vote on the seven-member council, and had the same political clout as council members.

But under the new system, the mayor is elected by all city voters, unlike council members, who are elected by a small number of voters in their individual districts. Although Fresno's is actually a modified strong-mayor system, the powers that voters installed in the mayor were substantial compared with the old system.

Instead of city policy being whipsawed by a council of seven "mini-mayors," the city's executive authority would be in the mayor's office and the legislative authority would rest with the council.

But as the change was being made, some council members didn't get the message. It should have been obvious. If the mayor is going to get stronger, the council is going to get weaker.

But the council/mayor tensions have been bristling ever since. That's being played out behind the scenes today, as the more aggressive council members on the council spar with Mayor Ashley Swearengin. Some even want to roll back mayoral authority, although they won't admit it publicly.

Jim Patterson was the first strong mayor in 1997, and has a view of the job that no else has. He served as mayor under both systems, with his first term coming as one of the council members. The mayor's post then was mostly a ceremonial job.

"The difference in the two capacities are as clear as night and day," Patterson said the other day. "The strong mayor is the only city leader elected at large. The system is working as voters intended. As mayor, I was given a clear set of expectations, the tools to achieve them and accountability to the voters."

Patterson said the current tensions between the council and the mayor are similar to those in the elected and legislative branches at the state and national levels. But he warned that they can't be left to fester. Both sides must communicate, he said.

"When new council members come on the job, they go through a period of building trust with the mayor's office," Patterson said. "They either develop it or not. The administration must be communicating with them thoroughly and completely. No one likes to be surprised."

Swearengin is the city's third strong mayor, and the system still has some growing pains. But efforts to undermine mayoral authority must be fought at every turn.

The problem in the old system was that one council member would come up with a wacky idea, and then he or she only needed three other council members to make it public policy.

It happened regularly, and there were times that council members were even indicted for their misdeeds. Do we really want to return to that old system?

Council Members Lee Brand and Andreas Borgeas led an effort to create a charter review committee to recommend changes in the document that governs the city. This review is aimed at tweaking the charter to improve it. That's fine, but it would be unwise for the committee to limit the strong-mayor system.

The mayor is directly accountable to all city voters. Council members are only accountable to those in their districts. If city voters don't like the way Swearengin is running Fresno, they can vote her out next year, and change the executive branch.

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