I'm starting to hear people wonder why goings-on at the City of Salem haven't changed more this year, given that four newly-elected city councilors joined Tom Andersen to form a 5-4 progressive majority on the City Council.
Well, this is sort of similar to asking why Republicans haven't been able to get much of their legislative agenda passed even though they control the presidency and both houses of Congress. Politics is complicated. So are bureaucracies.
But at the national level, the reins of power are easier to discern.
Here in Salem, all one has to do is look at a City of Salem organizational chart to understand that our Council-Manager form of city government diffuses power so broadly (also, confusingly), it's tough to tell who is really in charge. (Click the chart to enlarge.)
We see that the general notion is Salem residents are at the top of the organizational pecking order, because they elect the Mayor and City Councilors -- who then select a City Manager who is responsible for hiring other city staff and administering the various city departments.
This is a "weak Mayor " form of municipal government. Mayor Bennett is unpaid and doesn't have any administrative responsibilities, unlike the case in larger cities (such as Portland) with a "strong Mayor" system of governance.
So as a City of Salem web page says, "While the City Council and Mayor set laws, policies and goals for the City of Salem, the City Manager and City Departments implement them."
Thus there's a considerable inertia that has to be overcome before citizens start seeing tangible signs of changed policies. For example, Salem residents have elected five city councilors who oppose a third bridge across the Willamette, which I like to call the Billion Dollar Boondoggle.
They've had one chance to vote on an issue affecting the third bridge, a.k.a. Salem River Crossing.
That 5-4 vote rejected a proposed Intergovernmental Agreement that would have helped the bridge project move forward. But it didn't kill the project, which is still stumbling onward due to previous actions by a City Council with a conservative new-bridge-loving majority.
The eight city councilors (the Mayor also has a vote on the city council) aren't paid either. Nor do they have staff to help them. And weirdly, there's some sort of rule that if a councilor requests information from City staff that would take more than an hour (I think it is) to provide, that request has to be approved by the City Manager.
Given that the current unpaid Mayor and city councilors all have "real" jobs, the current set-up makes it tough for those elected officials to exercise much control over the full-time paid employees of the City of Salem. Plus, the City Manager, Steve Powers, was chosen by a previous Mayor and City Council.
Bob Wells, a City Manager who retired in 2012, was asked what the most difficult part of his job was. His answer:
I think most city managers would say that managing the politics is the most difficult part of the job.
When I was in my twenties I worked in the city manager’s office for three years. Bob Moore was the city manager and he was one of the most ethical, visionary city managers I ever observed. But I watched the toll the politics took on him and I made up my mind that I would never be a city manager. Obviously I changed my mind but I went into the job fully understanding the challenges.
I can only guess what Wells meant by "managing the politics."
This is clear, though: a City Manager serves at the pleasure of the City Council. So they have to keep the members of the Council happy, while also trying to do what they think is best for Salem, and dealing with outside pressures from special interest groups such as the Chamber of Commerce.
Not an easy job.
In public, City Manager Powers comes across as quite diffident. Meaning, he doesn't speak passionately about policy issues or engage in "rah-rah" talk that could energize the citizenry. So even though Salem has a strong City Manager form of government, so far Powers hasn't lived up to his last name -- using his position as a firm lever of power to change Salem for the better.
This might be partly because Powers is negotiating the transition from a strongly conservative-dominated City Council to a mildly progressive-dominated City Council. If progressive replacements for Mayor Bennett and several city councilors up for re-election in 2018 occur (we can only hope!), Powers might begin to act more assertively to make policy changes in line with the progressive choices of Salem voters.
Here's another peculiarity of Salem that makes it difficult for strong leaders to emerge at City Hall.
Unlike Portland and Eugene, Salem doesn't have any local TV stations. And our newspaper, the Statesman Journal, is pretty much useless when it comes to reporting on city politics.
Thus every day I can learn a lot more about what is happening at the Portland City Hall than the Salem City Hall, because I'm able to see Mayor Wheeler and Portland city councilors being interviewed on TV news, and read about their policy positions in the Oregonian.
I'd like to see more city officials here in Salem -- whether elected or paid staff -- step forward and express themselves clearly and passionately.
Sure, it's more difficult to do this when there isn't the media "soapbox" other cities our size usually have. But unless Salem's citizens see their leaders speaking out about important issues, the general feeling of apathy and "who cares?" in this town is going to persist more than it would otherwise.
Bottom line for me: I don't know who is in charge at the City of Salem. Much of the time it seems that nobody is. Or everybody is, which amounts to pretty much the same thing.
We have a weak Mayor and strong City Manager form of government, yet our Mayor is heard from more than the City Manager (and even then, not much). When City Manager Powers came to town, he said "I'm here to help Salem become the best city in the United States."
Well, we're a long way from that goal.
To accomplish it, there's going to have to be some strong progressive leadership at City Hall. So far such isn't much in evidence. We can only hope that things will change as the remaining conservatives on the City Council are kicked out of office, and creative, forward-thinking people take their place.