"At this point, give the nod to the mayor"
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:33 PM
"Islanders like their mayor.Even if they don't like the mayor at any given time, they do seem rather fond of the office. We were struck by that notion as we looked back over the past two mayoral elections. While most city council races draw no more than two candidates per seat, 11 hopefuls for the mayor's post have come forward in the last two campaigns alone - five in 1993, six in 1997. Business people, tutors, contractors, retirees, hay haulers, gas station attendants - all manner of citizens have put themselves before the voters for the chance to swing the gavel as titular head of island government. What's the draw?It's not the power (although a few dilettantes, we suspect, latch onto the notion of shaking things up for their own ends), as most policy-making resides with the council. And day-to-day operations around city hall are overseen by a professional administrator. To be sure, the mayor wields an ax over the various department heads - as we've seen in the Dwight Sutton tenure - and is the first line of budget writing. But the job is far more negotiator than dictator. We suspect the attraction for those serious about the position is, as several have mused in the past, the chance to be the people's official - part envoy to other governments and boards, part liaison between the city and the public, part ceremonial figurehead, swinger of gavel and shaker of hands. Therein too lies its popularity with the public - the mayor's office is still seen as the best conduit for concerns about city affairs, both political and functional.Would the island be better off without one?As a council review of the future of island government gets under way, we don't find arguments for efficiency and accountability under a city manager particularly persuasive. And when we looked at this as a community in 1993 - and put it before a vote - it failed badly. If the public is asked again, we suspect support for a change would be similarly lukewarm.The challenge for any mayor is to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, and shape the office accordingly during their term. Some will show more aptitude for management of city workers, less for trying to steer the council in particular directions - or the other way around. We've seen examples of both in the last decade, and think the public has been well served each way.Switching to a council/manager should be seen for what it is - less an attempt to guarantee quality than to provide the best insurance against things falling apart. Alas, there is no guarantee. The system will always succeed and fail by the talents of the people who make it up. Good candidates, good government - simple as that. "