August 29, 2006 > Cities
"What is the city but the people?"
by Steve Warga
Cities. We love them as if they were a best friend. Sometimes, we love to hate them! Many among us embrace city life while others can hardly stand the thought of crossing inside a city border. To those who choose to be residents, cities are home to their homes, nearly as personal and intimate as their own family room. Some cities, like San Francisco, enjoy worldwide reputations; others may be known only to those closest to them.
Whether great, bustling madhouses of high-rise activity, or quiet, tree-lined villages, cities are geographical areas comprising the most basic unit of government in our country. Cities manage things like sidewalks, streets, parks, utilities and in some cases, public transportation; cities fund and manage the essentials of public safety services, police and fire departments. They also manage growth and development within their borders. They are the public face of their residents' collective hopes, dreams and aspirations for the place they call home. As Hayward's new mayor, Mike Sweeney, told TCV during his election campaign, "I've always liked working at the local level, you're closer to folks."
Cities impact so very much of our daily lives, yet it isn't really "the city," it's the people who work for the city, be they elected, appointed or hired. So, who runs the cities? Who makes those decisions that can greatly affect the quality of life in the home of our homes?
In recent weeks, TCV introduced readers to the managers of the five cities comprising the greater Tri-City area. These managers and their staffs, perform the nuts and bolts work of running the fairly large corporations we know as Hayward, Fremont, Milpitas, Newark and Union City.
Most U.S. cities adopt one of four types of government when they incorporate. The four most common forms are, mayor-council; manager-council; commission; and representative town meeting. Of the four, manager-council happens to be the model for all five cities in TCV's distribution area. This is a system of government composed of a city manager who runs the day-to-day operations of the staff, supervised by a group of elected councilmembers, each holding one vote on the council. All five of our cities elect a mayor who presides over city council meetings, but holds no direct authority beyond that delegated to every councilmember. The mayor's seat is not entirely figurative, but our five mayors hold only nominal additional powers.
The mayor-council form seems most popular in larger cities with the resources to employ a full time mayor; often, councilmembers are full time as well. Curiously, this form of governance also appears in small towns, where the elected mayor may wear several other hats, such as fire chief, police chief, or full time private citizen. The other two forms, commission and representative town meeting, are somewhat rare, existing mainly in the East and South.
In our local manager-council format, the city manager usually holds considerable power and strongly influences city policy and governance. They are the ones on the front lines, working full time and beyond. Typically, part-time mayors and councilmembers are reluctant to interfere with their managers. Any direct supervisory action may only occur when a majority of councilmembers agrees. Generally, councilmembers prefer to allow city managers free rein, thus achieving a certain balance of power in the city.
Another aspect to city governments is the question of general law or charter organizations. General Law cities must comply with all applicable California statutes including caps on councilmember salaries and other expenditures, whereas charter cities are limited almost entirely by the specific provisions of their voter-approved charters. Perhaps the most significant difference between the two is that charter cities may collect taxes on transfers of real property, general law cities may not. Pleasing as this may sound to ambitious politicians, only 108 of California's 478 cities operates under a charter. This may be because voters are reluctant to approve a charter after learning of the additional liabilities a taxing authority may incur. Whatever the reason, moves to change from general law to charter only rarely succeed.
It seems fair to say that our cities most directly reflect the will of voters. This is where the rubber of government meets the road of local voters. City politicians are the most approachable and available of all politicians. City managers and clerks and planners are all the most approachable of public employees. So, we urge readers to approach their local governors; become involved; go to city council meetings or planning commission sessions; take advantage of public comment times. You could even apply for one of the many committee or commission seats that come available from time-to-time. The more residents involve themselves in city affairs, the greater will grow the quality of your city life.