Strong Mayor, Weak Mayor, No Mayor—In Terms of Policy, It May Not Matter Much

Efforts to reform municipal governance systems have little impact on actual policies, researchers say. 

Image
Danny Howard/Flickr

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has spent the past several years arguing that the mayor of Sacramento should have more power. Under current law, Sacramento’s City Council gets final say regarding the city budget, with the mayor getting just one vote on the council. And the budgetary process is directed not by the mayor, but by the city manager, a council-appointed official.

Should a referendum set to appear on the November ballot—nicknamed the “strong mayor measure”—pass, Mayor Johnson would finally, according to Johnson and his supporters, have the authority to guide the city’s policies in the direction that voters actually want.

“Since the City Manager is basically the servant of eight masters (the eight Council Members), he is not in a position to address city-wide issues,” writes Jeffrey Cassity, a contributor to Sacramento Press. “The Mayor, even a forceful personality like the current one, has little real power to do anything.” 

But according to new research set to be published next month, no urban governance structure—whether a strong mayor system or a weak mayor system, as in this case—is necessarily better at implementing the policies their constituents actually support. Policies enacted by municipal governments of all stripes tend to be a pretty good reflection of their electorate’s ideological preferences, as it turns out.

Political scientists Chris Tausanovitch of UCLA and Christopher Warshaw of MIT aggregated a collection of nationwide survey results to determine the political leanings of 1,600 U.S. cities and towns. They then paired those results with the types of government structures used by those same municipal governments, and compared each one to a 2010 survey that outlined the social, political, and environmental policies enacted by each individual local government body.

What they found is that all municipal governments, irrespective of their structure, tend to implement policies that align with the political ideology of their constituents. In essence, all local governments are more or less equally good at listening to their voters. 

“These results… cast doubt on the hypothesis that simple institutional reforms enhance responsiveness in municipal governments,” Tausanovitch and Warshaw write. They define “responsiveness” as the tendency of governments to adjust “to changes in citizens' views by moving policy in the direction of those views."

This research naturally comes with a few caveats. Tausanovitch and Warshaw have focused solely on this notion of "responsiveness," as opposed to say, comparative efficiencies or inefficiencies of urban governance systems. Would Sacramento’s potholes be filled quicker, for example, if the city grants its mayor more executive power? That’s unclear.

Nonetheless, these results do suggest Sacramento voters ought to be skeptical of the idea that the overall policy direction of the city will change dramatically if they grant their mayor more executive power. As these political scientists put it, they could get rid of the mayor altogether and it probably wouldn't make much of a difference, policy-wise. 

About the Author