Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Kevin W. Johnson: The Crooked Conductor

The crooked conductor on the Twentieth Century Ltd. 
As the January 2014 transition deadline approaches for the change in city government (click here), I want to call your attention to an article that appeared in the Yale Law Journal in 2006 on the subject of the mayoral versus the city manager form of government (click   here to read the article). Written by “Richard C. Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, the article seeks to answer the question posed by its title: “Can Strong Mayors Empower Weak Cities?” By “strong mayors” Schragger refers not to Schwarzenmayors but to males and females who have strong executive powers by reason of the city charter and/or the state law in the area where they hold office. By “weak cities” Schragger means, well,  cities like Portsmouth, which are the stepchild of  the states in which they are located. In the four levels of government—federal, state, county,  and local—cities are at the bottom of the political food chain,  and generally have to subsist on scraps thrown to them from the federal, state, and county levels above them.  The top to bottom structure is dominated from the top by the federal government, which shares power with the states, as is provided for in the U.S. Constitution, but state constitutions usually do not follow suit, providing little recognition and power to city governments. “This arrangement,” Schragger writes, “in which cities are formally subservient to states, has significant consequences for local political actors.” The particular local actor who suffers most in this arrangement is the mayor, because she is the chief executive government in city government, but  she has relatively little authority to carry out her responsibilities.
Because their powers are limited, too many mayors have historically resorted to underhanded methods to make up for their lack of clout. Corruption became synonymous with city government in the late 1800s, with mayors and council members (or aldermen) competing with each other for graft. Early in the 1900s (that is to say, the twentieth century), in the decade and a half known as the Progressive Era, reformers, especially in urban cities, cracked down on corruption and helped promote the change to the city manager form of government. Many mid-size and smaller cities followed the example of the larger cities. The aim of the reform movement was to take politics out of city government by replacing mayors with professional (appointed-as-opposed-to-elected) city managers, who had the educational qualifications and training to run a city after the fashion of a business. Or at least that was the hope. 
                           Century of the City Manager
The twentieth century can be said to be the century of the city manager, but well before the century was over a number of cities grew dissatisfied with that form of government and began switching back to the mayoral form of government. Portsmouth was one of those cities, switching back in 1988. The twenty-first century is shaping up to be the century of the strong mayoral form of city government, according to Schragger. At least that’s the way things are trending, possibly because chronically depressed cities like Portsmouth cannot afford to have city managers as chief executive officers. City managers have no political power—they’re not supposed to have political power—but  cities cannot get by with politically impotent chief executive officers. Former Portsmouth city manager Barry Feldman, whose whole city manager career was marked by controversy, offered advice for aspiring city managers in the doctoral dissertation he later wrote at the University of Connecticut: be as political as you can get away with,  because without political influence a city manager is a cross between a punching bag and a doormat, even if he she has more education and a higher salary than city council, whom the city managers have to answer to. I’ve been told by a former city council member that Feldman serves as Kevin W. Johnson’s guru when it comes to questions of governance. Heaven help Portsmouth if  that’s true, because somebody should write a dissertation on Feldman’s career, which illustrates the futility of the city manager form of government. Johnson gives every sign of being as underhanded and dishonest as Feldman, which qualifies him to be Portsmouth’s next city manager. 
                                Progress, Portsmouth Style 
            Switching back to city manager is the most important (and deleterious) thing that has happened in city government in  Portsmouth in the last thirty years, but with Johnson’s connivance the measure was put on an off-year ballot without many voters knowing what was happening. Something that important deserved more time for consideration, and a vote in a general election, which was apparently what supporters of the switch back did not want. In homosexual hating Appalachia, Johnson, whose career took him from West Virginia, to San Francisco, to Portsmouth,  would queer any project he was identified with, so they knew better than to allow more time for consideration and discussion. That Johnson  is also underhanded, as he has frequently  shown himself to be, as on the so-called “building committee,” makes him a favorite target for the homophobes on Topix, who denounce him as not only queer but corrupt. From a drug-dealing pimp to this. That’s progress, Portsmouth style.
Frank Gerlach, who may be the  only person in Portsmouth’s history to serve as both city manager and mayor, strongly advised against switching back.  But what does he know, a successful lawyer and seasoned leader? Granted that the terrible trio of Greg Bauer, Jim Kalb, and David Malone are the best argument against the mayoral system that anyone might possibly make, but removing the mayor, except as a ceremonial figure, from the city government, will be worse because at least the office of the mayor serves a check and a balance to the city council and leaves open the possibility that somebody who is not a pawn may occupy the office. But without the  checks and balances the mayoral form of government potentially allows, we will have Kevin W. Johnson as the crooked conductor on the train the apt name for which is the Twentieth Century Limited, which will take  Portsmouth back to the previous, or possibly even to the nineteenth century. “All Aboard!”  Will Portsmouth never live down the curse of Barry Feldman? All aboard! Will it ever it stop being a weak city? All aboard! Will it ever have a mayor again, a strong mayor, who will not be railroaded out of office by the usual suspects for whom most of the failures occupying public office are nothing but puppets. All aboard! The painful irony is that this form of business-like governance will be run by chronic losers whose own business ventures, like the Emporium (that historic landmark!) have ended in failure, if not bankruptcy.

Portsmouth's railroad terminal building was razed to make way for the county jail.
(Click here)