Wednesday January 16, 2013

Pittsfield and North Adams mayors have come in all manner of political shapes and sizes over the years, but they would probably all agree, not surprisingly, that the so-called "strong mayor" form of government is the best one. Pittsfield’s Charter Review Study Committee is now wrestling with the question of whether or not such a system is best for the city.

As the committee goes through its paces it is apparent that there is strong sentiment for a four-year term for the mayor, an idea that unequivocally makes sense. Creation of a deputy mayor or chief of staff position has its advocates, and while there is concern about the cost of adding this job, designating a knowledgeable individual to free up the mayor from some of the drudge work so the chief executive can focus more on the big picture would have benefits worth the cost.

Ideally there will be comprehensive discussion about eliminating ward city councilors and having 11 at large city councilors instead. This would require all councilors to look at the big picture, rather than the parochial interests some, though not all, ward councilors have confined themselves to over the years. It would widen the pool of candidates, as not all wards consistently field a solid slate. For example, while Ward 7’s Anthony Simonelli has proven to be a responsible city councilor, without an opponent in 2011 he basically signed up for the job, and no councilor should get in absent a challenger.

Perhaps the most significant provision of the strong mayor system of government is that it enables the mayor to appoint most or all of his department heads and other employees without review by the City Council, which has the option of voting to reject them. The Pittsfield City Council has this power under the so-called "weak" system ("strong" and "weak" are misleading terms as the distinction is not that dramatic) and this authority provides a check-and-balance on mayoral appointments and discourages mayors from making politically motivated appointments.

It is probably safe to say that if voters like the mayor who is in office they will like the "strong" system and if they don’t care for the mayor they will prefer the "weak" system. However, if the mayor’s authority is strengthened in the charter it will likely remain that way for another 50 or 100 years regardless of who is the mayor. That is something to keep in mind as the review process goes forward.