Time to Tweak Springfield’s Governance Structure

It looks good on paper — even if it isn’t formally down on paper yet.

That’s our initial reaction to a change in Springfield’s governance, as proposed by Chamber of Commerce leaders. They seek a longer term for the mayor, a substantial raise for that office, and the addition of a new position — that of ‘chief administrative officer,’ which is not, at least according to those pushing this initiative, to be confused with a city manager.

Instead, this individual would be part of what would have to be considered a modified ‘strong mayor’ form of government, a model that has been incorporated by several municipalities, including Philadelphia, Oakland, Kansas City, Mo., and St. Petersburg, Fla. Those cities have kept, or returned to, a strong mayor, one who sets a vision for a city and devises strategies for carrying it out, while also adding a layer of professional administration, something most say is needed at a time when municipal management is becoming increasingly complex.

Chamber leaders say such a model can and will work in Springfield, and we believe that it should at least be given serious consideration.

We understand clearly why business leaders would be seeking such a structural change. They have witnessed the progress achieved on several fronts by a control board completely unencumbered by politics, and don’t want to see the city backslide in any way. While no one will say it publicly, there are many who believe Springfield is better off with a control board and are not looking forward to the day when the board concludes its work here.

The proposed changes to Springfield’s governance are being put on the table to quell those fears, and put in place a format that takes the best from both the strong mayor and council-city manager forms of government.

Here’s how it works: The model calls for a mayor who would be elected by the voters and have what amounts to pre-control-board power, meaning the authority to set policy, present a budget, and, overall, set a tone for the city. But it also includes a new position, what chamber leaders call a ‘chief administrative officer,’ who would handle the day-to-day operations of the city and, in simple terms, carry out that mayor’s vision.

This format provides the city with an elected CEO, someone who will be accountable to voters in a way that no city manager could be. But it also puts in place an administrator who can handle the myriad, often complex nuances of what amounts to a $500 million entity — and can also make sure the city doesn’t spend more money than it has, a condition that spelled doom during the Mike Albano administration.

As we said, it all sounds good, and much of this plan makes sense. Two-year terms for mayors are impractical. The second year of each term is spent running for office, and, as we’ve seen this year, each issue, each decision, becomes highly politicized. Meanwhile, raising the salary from the current $95,000 to $150,000 makes clear sense, and we’ve made this argument many times. While there is the danger that one might run for mayor just for the money, there is also the opportunity to attract many quality candidates who wouldn’t run otherwise because the money isn’t good enough. As for the CAO position, it carries the potential for helping Springfield to continue the progress it has made over the past few years.

Despite all its apparent good sense, however, the chamber’s initiative may not be an easy sell. After all, it represents substantial change, and change is always greeted with skepticism. Meanwhile, this modified strong mayor form of government, while gaining favor in other parts of the country, remains an unknown quantity in the Bay State.

And there are many details to be worked out as to just how the responsibilities will be divided among the mayor and CAO, who will appoint the latter, how long a contract that individual will have, and much more.

As we said at the top, the chamber’s proposal looks good on paper — but cities, especially this one, aren’t managed on paper.

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