“Weak mayor” vs. “strong mayor” systems of government

By: Christopher Ryan Crisanti

Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently unveiled her 2022 budget proposal to the City Council. While normally delivered in mid-October, the annual budget address not only provides an overview of the city’s fiscal priorities, but also reflects the significance and the power of the position of “mayor.”

As the chief executive of a city containing a population of 2.7 million, the mayor is responsible for crafting a $16.7 billion budget, presenting it to the City Council, and working with them to pass it.

The power does not stop there. The mayor’s formal duties also include appointing committee chairs and department heads, submitting ordinances to be considered by the City Council, and presiding over council meetings. The mayor also has veto power.

Despite all of this power, the organizational structure of the city of Chicago is actually set up to be what political scientists refer to as a “weak mayor” structure of government; a system in which the city council as a whole has more power than the mayor.

According to The National League of Cities, some attributes of a “weak mayor” system include a powerful city council, limited or no veto power, and delegating daily operating duties to a chief administrator, such as a village administrator. Consequently, characteristics of a “strong mayor” system include the power of appointing and removing department heads, strong veto power, and overseeing daily operations.

Per the NLC’s description of the two, it seems as though the mayor of Chicago fits the bill as a “strong mayor,” if not hybrid model. This is certainly a valid observation.  

However, the city council as a legislative body has historically contained overall more power than the mayor. One major power, aldermanic prerogative, gives alderman discretion over zoning and licensing decisions in their ward (although there have been recent efforts to curtail this power). Aldermen also have certain control when it comes to funding capital improvement projects in their ward, such as sidewalk repairs, fixing streetlights, filling and potholes. In effect, the case is often made that aldermen operate as de facto mini mayors of their respective ward.

While most of these powers still remain in place, past mayors have been successful at using the office’s tools to help transfer some power to the executive and shape public perception of what it means to be “mayor.”

Perhaps the most common example is the rein of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who political scientists have described as the “last of the urban machine bosses.” Daley understood the importance of incorporating the political process into government. In doing so, he was able to centralize control of the city even though the structure of city government still technically operated under a “weak mayor” system (at least on paper).

In fact, certain executive functions, such as crafting the budget, rested with the City Council prior to Daley’s rein. Once Daley became mayor in 1955, he was successful in getting the council to transfer this and other administrative powers to the Mayor’s Office.

Daley was not constrained by the then dysfunctional council. Instead, he used the tools he had at his disposal to help shape the Mayor’s Office in his vision to effectively govern for the good of residents. In effect, while the city of Chicago is set up to run as a “weak mayor” system, the nature of running a big city government has certainly shifted some attributes of the structure.

So why does all of this matter? The first point is to recognize that most forms of municipal government operate under a “weak mayor” system. Although some readers may not actually live in Chicago, their municipality is governed not by one central authority, but rather a body of decision makers (trustees plus the village president) with daily admin duties headed by a village manager.

Secondly, while mayors are the chief executives of their government, they are not the sole administer and most of them do not oversee daily operations. Rather, this responsibility is delegated to the village manager and department heads. These actors play a role to help make government work and keep the mayor’s power in-check. Some often overlooked managers who make important daily decisions are your local police chief, fire department head, clerk, and village manager.

So while certain governmental powers may vary compared to Chicago, the structure of municipal government remains more or less the same. Your government may not be so much different then Chicago after all.

This column was also published in the DesPlaines Valley News.

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