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Up for debate: To strengthen or weaken the position of Rochester mayor?

Up for debate: To strengthen or weaken the position of Rochester mayor?

In the coming years, Rochester will go through a rare transition of power at City Hall — unlike anything that has happened in decades — as two of its top officials prepare to give up their posts.

City Administrator Stevan Kvenvold has announced plans to retire this spring after 38 years on the job (nine more as an assistant). And though he has not made anything official, Mayor Ardell Brede, who will be nearly 80 at the time, is not expected to run for a fifth term in 2018. In an interview, he declined to make his intentions public. But sources close to Brede told me he is unlikely to seek re-election.

Their departures will mean the loss of the city's top administrative executive (Kvenvold), as well as its public face (Brede). The future of key projects they advocated for and supported, such as Destination Medical Center, will be left in the hands of their successors. 

In preparation for the changes ahead, the city's Charter Commission has begun discussing what the roles of city administrator and mayor might look like without Kvenvold and Brede at the helms. 

Rochester operates under a weak-mayor system of governance. The term is not a measure of effectiveness, but instead a way to label cities that use a more horizontal structure of power. The position of Rochester mayor is part-time (paid $34,545 annually) and is therefore not responsible for running the day-to-day operations of the city. Those are left up to the city administrator (paid $170,625 annually), with oversight from the council.

Left to right: Mayor Brede and Gregory Stavrou / 2015/ Photo by Sydney Flottum 

Left to right: Mayor Brede and Gregory Stavrou / 2015/ Photo by Sydney Flottum 

“It works pretty well, and it gives a lot of opportunity for citizen participation," Kvenvold told me in an interview. Rochester, he said, has the advantage over cities with strong-mayor systems, which tend to centralize more power in the mayor's office. "Here, it's not just one person calling the shots."

But critics argue the status quo is no longer suitable for a city of Rochester's size. Kellie Mueller, a member of the Charter Commission, would like to see the city's next mayor embrace some of the latitude afforded to him or her under the city's existing charter. Doing so, she said, would make government more accountable to the public.

“There is room for somebody more dynamic to come in and realize more power that is already in the charter, that has not been acted on in decades; not just with our current mayor, but going back several decades of mayors," said Mueller.

She added, “As Rochester grows, I hope to see mayors run more on a platform and vision, and that’s what they are elected on, and therefore responsible for following through with that.”

Who's in charge?

The structure of government is set up in a way that divides power between the city administration, council, mayor's office and three administrative boards — library, parks and public utilities.

How equally that power is shared is up for interpretation. Under City Charter Chapter IV, the mayor is considered the "chief magistrate or executive officer of the city." Among the position's greatest strengths is the ability to veto any ordinance, resolution or motion. 

"If in theory the mayor controlled three members of the council, then theoretically he or she could pretty much get their way, since a veto can only be overridden by five members," said Kvenvold. (Mayor Brede rarely exercises the veto — less than 10 times in 14 years. “If used too often, it loses its punch," he told me.)

Related video: Mayor Brede discusses weak mayor system (2015)

But Kvenvold, who has worked alongside five mayors, added it is rare that a mayor gets too close to the everyday operations of the city.

“Most of the mayors I’ve worked for don’t get involved in the details of the administration," he said. "They're mainly the face of the city, there to greet people. I know the current mayor takes pride in attending over a thousand of these types of events every year."

That absence of an engaged mayor leaves most of the responsibility in the hands of the city administrator. In addition to recommending the annual budget, Kvenvold also oversees the direction of each city department. The latter is technically a responsibility of the mayor, but one that Kvenvold has been carrying out for years. 

"I don't have too much authority in the charter," he said. “But I have assumed things over time because of my influence."

Other cities

To get an idea of how other cities operate, we looked to Duluth and St. Paul, the two Minnesota cities closest in size to Rochester. 

Both operate under a strong-mayor system and, unlike in Rochester, their mayors act as (and are paid like) full-time bosses.

"I strongly support the [strong-mayor] form of government," said Don Ness, the former mayor of Duluth. It provides more "elected accountability" and allows for "more bold leadership," he said.

When Ness first took office as mayor in 2008, Duluth was on the front lines of the global financial collapse. Health care liabilities and continued budget deficits were threatening to bankrupt the city.

"I came in and started making difficult and unpopular decisions," recalled Ness. Taxes and fees went up, services cut, benefits for retirees renegotiated. "I made a point of saying, I understand people are upset and if you want to blame somebody, you should blame me because that’s my responsibility."

Photo: Don Ness / 2011 / Minnesota National Guard

By his second term, for which he ran unopposed, the economy began to improve and Duluth's narrative began to change. Prior to getting out of politics in 2016, Ness had an approval rating of 89 percent, extraordinary popularity for a sitting politician. 

"With the issues we were facing, there had to be bold and decisive action to make the sort of progress we needed to see," Ness told me in a phone interview earlier this month.

He added that it would have been difficult for him to push through such an ambitious agenda under a weak-mayor system.

"Elected accountability allows for a chief executive as mayor to say, 'I've been elected by the people to carry out these tasks and I will face those same voters in the next re-election bid,' " said Ness.

Like Ness, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman agrees that a city government, like any large company or organization, is better off having a chief executive that is held directly accountable. Under the strong mayor system, he said, elections oftentimes serve as mandates for what policies and initiatives the city should pursue.

"People want to know what your primary goals are," Coleman said in an interview. "That doesn’t mean it is dictatorial, but people need to know who they can go to, who is accountable. It really allows the mayor to put their imprint on the city."

Proposed changes

In an effort to solidify the current structure of governance, Brede and Kvenvold have put forward a proposal to the Charter Commission that would relinquish some of the mayor's responsibilities and give them to the city administrator. The memo reads, in part:

The current descriptions in the Charter for both the City Administrator responsibilities and the Mayo responsibilities with regard to supervision of department heads do not accurately reflect how the city organization has operated since the position of City Administrator was created in 1965. The Charter changes that we have recommended are simply intended to codify how the City has operated for many decades.

In essence, the charter would be amended to better reflect how government in Rochester has worked for four decades. But in doing so, it could also weaken the authority the next mayor has.

Already, one member of the city council, which has final say over any changes to the charter, is speaking out against the proposal.

"This would take oversight of city departments away from elected officials," Councilor Michael Wojcik wrote to his personal blog. "The rational (sic) being given for the changes is that the current Mayor has chosen not to take on these responsibilities. The current Mayor has delegated many of his most important roles to the City Administrator. These changes would make that delegation permanent."

While many names have been floated as potential mayoral candidates in 2018, only one person, former state representative and current Bush Fellow, Kim Norton, has publicly expressed interest in the position.

"Look to the future," she wrote on Facebook in response to Wojcik's blog post. "We already have a weak mayor system, why would we make it weaker as the city becomes larger?"

The Charter Commission will take up discussion on this topic Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 4:30 p.m. in Room 104 of City Hall. The meeting is open to the public.

Related: Update from Wednesday's Charter Commission meeting via KIMT

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