At least once a week, someone writes me wanting me to do something, or demanding I do something, for which I have absolutely no authority. They believe a Mayor has more authority than I actually do. There is a lot of confusion. This is my attempt to clear things up.
YOU HAVE A CONCERN ABOUT …
SOMEONE AT CITY HALL, A PLOW DRIVER OR OTHER EMPLOYEE
The Mayor has no authority to hire, fire, discipline or direct City employees (except the limited role for police and fire described below). In some communities, the Mayor is in charge of operations. However, many years ago, the Common Council passed ordinances that delegate those roles to a full time professional administrator. The belief was that a part time Mayor does not have the time to oversee employees and, in some instances, would not have the temperament or skills to do so. In fact, there is no elected official who has any authority over city employees.
If you have a concern, I welcome hearing about it. I can use my influence to try to fix things. If concerns are sufficiently significant, I can let the Common Council know and it can intervene. But I cannot fix things directly. Good or bad, that is the way it is unless the Common Council changes ordinances.
Fortunately, Mequon’s employees as a group are dedicated public servants.
THE CITY ADMINISTRATOR
The Mayor also does not have authority over the City Administrator. The same ordinances that give the City Administrator authority over City Hall employees give the Common Council authority over the City Administrator. Although the Mayor chairs the Common Council, the Mayor does not get a vote except in case of a tie. Theoretically, putting the Common Council in charge of the City Administrator is good. Everyone is represented by their aldermen. However, aldermen have little day-to-day contact with City Hall operations. Plus, management by committee is cumbersome and slow.
Again, if you have a concern, I welcome hearing about it. I can use my influence to try to fix things. If concerns are sufficiently significant, I can let the Common Council know and it can intervene as a group. But I cannot fix things directly. Good or bad, that is the way it is.
Fortunately, Mequon has been blessed with very professional City Administrators.
Neither the Mayor nor the Common Council has any authority over the library. Under state law, the Common Council cannot set any policies at the library.The library board is a totally independent body. The Common Council is not even allowed to withhold funding if it disagrees with decisions of the library board. Under state law, the city is required to maintain the library and cannot reduce funding. The only options, as I understand them, are:
- Refuse to increase funding; or
- A nuclear option. The Common Council could eliminate the local library and then contribute the funds to a regional library that is likely to be less responsive to local concerns.
If you disagree with library decisions, contact library board members. They are local volunteers and are interested in hearing what their neighbors think.
Fortunately, Mequon has a very dedicated library board and staff.
MEQUON POLICE, FIRE OR AMBULANCE
Interestingly, considering how little authority the Mayor has with respect to the employees described above, the Mayor is the head of the police and fire departments under state law. Our ambulance services are part of the fire department. The Mayor may make orders, provided they are lawful, governing those departments. Of course, the Mayor likely has no qualifications for that role. Good mayors use that authority lightly.
Although the Mayor is the head of those departments, the Mayor still may not hire, fire or discipline. That authority is vested by state law in the Police and Fire Commission. However, the Police and Fire Commission is supposed to take action if a lawful order, including a lawful order by the Mayor, is disobeyed.
Finally, the budget of those departments is controlled by the Common Council, not the Mayor.
Fortunately, Mequon has dedicated, ethical and professional police officers and fire and ambulance staff and a very good Police and Fire Commission.
THE CITY BUDGET AND POLICIES
The Mayor does not set the City Budget or establish City policies. Those authorities are vested in the Common Council. The Mayor can recommend things, and I very frequently do, but aldermen are the decision makers.
POLICIES DURING A PANDEMIC OR OTHER DECLARED EMERGENCY
The Mayor may make temporary orders, but they are subject to review or denial by the Common Council at its next meeting. So, in Mequon, the Mayor has limited, temporary authority even in an emergency.
The Mayor has absolutely no authority over the schools. People frequently ask me to do something about school policy. I have no such authority. Under state law, the school district has its own board. They do not report to the City, and certainly not to the Mayor.
City committees (the planning commission, the parks board, etc.) make many decision in Mequon. People argue that the Mayor appoints the member to those committees, so the committees really are the Mayor’s puppets.
Although it is true that the Mayor makes most of the appointments, for the following reasons that does not lead to committees voting the way the Mayor would prefer:
- The Mayor has no authority to tell City committee members what to do or how to vote.
- There are well over 125 appointments. There are not enough volunteers to allow the Mayor to make appointments based primarily on philosophy or policy positions. I, like prior mayors, try to appoint professionally qualified, honest, civil volunteers. If I imposed voting litmus tests, the positions would never be filled.
- Most committee members’ terms are three years (the Police and Fire Commission terms are five years), so it takes at least three years before all members have been appointed by the Mayor.
- If a committee member is taking positions contrary to those of the Mayor, the Mayor cannot remove him or her until his or her term expires.
SO, WHY HAVE A MAYOR?
The Mequon Mayor has very little direct authority. The Mequon Mayor (1) is the chair of the Common Council (but cannot vote unless there is a tie), the Planning Commission and the sewer and water utility boards and can impact their agendas; (2) can veto legislation, subject to being overridden by six aldermen; (3) is the head of the police and fire departments; (4) can create temporary or ad hoc committees; (5) can declare a temporary emergency and make interim rules; (6) makes appointments subject to Common Council approval; and (7) can propose legislation. That is about all of the formal authority.
Mayors in some other communities have much more authority for operations under their ordinances. Mequon laws give most of that authority to aldermen and the City Administrator.
However, a good Mayor can communicate with the public, staff and the Common Council in a way that ultimately prompts action. The Mayor is the only elected City official who provides a voice for all residents, and if he or she does the job correctly, is the only elected official sufficiently involved at City Hall to know, at least on a macro basis, how most functions of City government are handled. Finally, a qualified Mayor should have the personal and professional skills to understand how things should be done and, if they are not being done that way, to propose policy changes.
In some ways, being the Mequon Mayor effectively takes as much or more time than being the Mayor in other communities. To have an impact, I still need to be involved in most of the same matters, but convincing others can take more time than making decisions.
I am always happy to hear from people and try to help when their issues involve city government and its services.