Does Charlottesville Want To Elect A Strong Mayor?

By. Neil Williamson, President

Charlottesville City Manager Gary O’Connell’s recent announcement of  his departure from Charlottesville City government presents a unique opportunity for the City to discuss its governance structure.  Prior to conducting an expensive national search for a new City Manager should the City consider a strong elected mayor form of goveBallot Boxrnment?

While quiet conversations regarding the form of city government have occurred over the years, the Free Enterprise Forum believes now is the time to for City Council to step up and engage the citizens on this fundamental issue.

In a City known for considering Council resolutions on international affairs, to ignore this opportunity for dialog on governance seems out of place.  

To be clear, the concept of a “strong” Mayor is not a knock on Mayor Norris or any previous Mayor, it is a structure of government.  The definitions of a strong mayor system according to

Under this system the Mayor is the chief executive and the City Council is the legislative body.  This system is modeled after the Federal Constitution structure of government. 
The primary components are:

Chief Executive
City Council
  • Not A Member Of The City Council
  • Proposes City Budget
  • Appoints Department Directors
  • Veto Authority
  • Elects Own Presiding Officer
  • Sets City Council Agenda
  • Approves City Budget
  • Mayoral Veto Override Authority

Many communities of varying sizes have chosen to move to a strong mayor system.  The Council Manager system, which came out of the progressive movement in the 1900s, is still the most popular form of city governance.  In this, more corporate structure, Councilors are elected then the Mayor is elected by Council.  Council appoints the City Manager who acts as the CEO of the City.

Federal Way, Washington was considering a move to a strong mayor system in 2008 prompting this posting from resident Jerry Vaughn :

Proponents of the mayor-council form of government assert a strong mayor form is “constitutional” while the council-manager form is “bureaucratic.”

That is hyperbole. It attaches convenient labels designed to make the form they favor sound “good” and the other sound “bad”. . .

We are a local government, not a national or state government. We have a form of government in Federal Way that ensures a high level of efficiency, effectiveness, responsiveness and professional service led by a qualified CEO. Progressive local governments throughout the United States have embraced the council-manager form of government for over 60 years and with good reason. More than 92 million individuals live in 9,620 cities operating under council-manager government; 63 percent of U.S. cities with populations of 25,000 or more operate under the council-manager form. Strong mayor-Council governments are found mostly in very big or very small cities. In many of those cities, in addition to the strong mayor, they also have a city administrator adding a layer of bureaucracy and costs.

In 2008, Federal Way voted to remain in the Council/Manager form of governance.  Just three years prior the City of San Diego California chose the Strong Mayor for a five year test.  This trial period is coming to a close and the voters are poised to vote on the results according to a report by KPBS yesterday (2/1):

SAN DIEGO — San Diego’s experiment with the strong mayor form of government is coming to an end. This summer voters will get to decide whether to keep the system or not.

The San Diego City Council will act today to put the strong mayor form of government on the June 8th ballot. San Diegans voted to try out the system in 2004. Now they have to decide whether to make it permanent. City Council President Ben Hueso says voters are essentially being asked how they want the city to be run.

“Should the mayor be someone that should be held accountable in terms of how the policies of the council are implemented? That was a difference in the old form of government,” he says. “It’s going to be a question of how they want to oversee their government.”

If the strong mayor format is approved the city will also add a ninth council district to prevent tie votes on the city council. If it’s rejected, San Diego will return to a city manager style of government with the city council largely in control.

The Free Enterprise Forum does not yet have a position on the issue of City government structure but we recognize the importance of the discussion at this specific time.

So the question remains, should the City of Charlottesville open this can of worms prior to a national search for a new City Manager or does City Council believe they know the will of the people and would rather not engage this potentially divisive topic at this time?

More importantly than City Council, do the citizens want to have this community dialog on governance?

In a City known for civic discussion lasting generations (Water, Meadowcreek Parkway, etc.), the relative silence on this issue  is deafening and leads one to wonder if a more successful two party system were in place would the issue of a publicly elected mayor be garnering more attention?.  


20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website

2 responses

  1. In my humble opinion, the Charlottesville and Albemarle governing bodies should merge into one regional authority. The residents of both the city and county live as if those entities are one (i.e. shop, work, reside, recreate) so, as a lifelong resident/native, I’ve always been baffled by the us versus them “cooperation” (bickering) between the governing bodies. We could arguably cut costs and improve efficiency by merging. But I digress with this snowball’s chance.

  2. I agree – I really don’t get it…as a person that is new to the area. I live just beyond the “city” line – there is a city school within walking distance of our house but I have to take the kids all the way over to avon extd. In a time of economic hardship, seems like consolidation would make a lot of sense.

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