Are We Too Dumb to Govern Ourselves?
By Christian Piatt
(Originally Printed in PULP)
As the time draws closer for Pueblo’s mayoral question to achieve ballot-worthy status, tensions have been a little high around these parts. Lines have been clearly drawn on both sides of the issue, and there’s been no shortage of drama, particularly regarding the Committee to Assess Local Mayorship’s (CALM’s) petitions to make way for a charter amendment that would require the city to have a “strong” mayor at the helm.
In case you’ve been napping for the last few months, he’s a basic rundown:
CALM was created several months ago to press for the charter amendment to be included on the upcoming November ballot. It is clear from the wording of their proposed amendment (visit http://www.pueblocalm.blogspot.com to read for yourself) that the type of leader they seek is historically described as a strong mayor.
In response to CALM’s actions, the City Council assembled its own “Blue Ribbon” panel of advisors, who then proposed their own model of leadership, which included a “weak” mayor.
Though there are many details differentiating a strong mayor from a weak one, the main distinction is that, with a weak mayor, we would maintain the existing city manager position to do most of the real work of governance. The weak mayor, which would be a member of city council, would effectively be a step up from the current council president, charged mainly with diplomatic and other symbolic duties.
Council took some time to decide whether to put their own weak mayor option on the upcoming ballot, as their action seemed to be a response to CALM’s proposal. In the last couple of weeks, a question arose about whether CALM’s amendment would make it after more than a thousand of their petition signatures were disallowed by Pueblo City Clerk, Gina Dutcher.
Says Roger Gomez, CALM’s Executive Director and current Owner/Operator of Steel City Dogs, “We ended up handing in 4,575 signatures. The expected signature disqualification rate for an average petition drive is about 20%. The City Clerk’s Office ended up invalidating over 35% of our signatures…”
Asked if they could provide the extra signatures in a week, CALM quickly mobilized and collected 644 more names in two days. The signatures were verified as of Tuesday, August 18th. Now the voters will have three choices in November: a strong mayor, a weak mayor, or keeping things as-is.
Though it might seem potentially frustrating to have Council openly working against CALM’s efforts, the benefit has been a more informed public. “We are delighted,” says Gomez, “that so many voters we have talked to have been able to distinguish between our strong mayor platform and the new weak mayor platform adopted by the City Council. The voters are very aware and they asked a lot of specific questions about structure and cost.”
Regarding cost, one argument for the strong mayor option is that it should cost less. Whereas in the weak mayor system, one council member serving as mayor will be paid more for added duties, while also employing a full-time city manager, the strong mayor would replace the city manager role, leaving Council as-is. The proposal is for the strong mayor to be paid $50,000 a year less that the city manager position too, and though some fear that additional positions under the mayor will be created, many current duties and positions currently under the manager simply would be shifted over to the mayor’s office.
Asked why Council would pick now to jump into the ring on this issue, Gomez was clear.
“I believe the weak mayor alternative is an attempt to dilute and possibly confuse the voter on election day,” he says. “The Pueblo voters have been watching this debate and they know the difference. That does not mean that over the next two and half months our opponents won’t try to blur that fine line with a weak [mayor] ad campaign.”
So why the objections to a strong mayor in the first place? The answers vary, even within Council, though the majority of council members oppose CALM’s proposal. One common argument is that an elected official is accountable first to the voters rather than to Council, which theoretically makes them more susceptible to corruption.
Another, more concerning, reason has come out in commentary from City Council members themselves. In a City Council Work Session held on the evening of June 22nd, Councilman Mike Occhiato referred to the median family income and education levels as cause for questioning whether or not a capable candidate could be fielded from Pueblo. He also states:
“There’s always the ability to hire someone within a relatively short period of time, or to bring someone up from the ranks within the professional pool of professionals who actually managed a department head versus the gene pool that a strong mayor might have. And I say ‘gene pool’ because strong mayors in larger communities [pause] a lot of the department heads that have those positions are not filled by people with competent ability.”
Occhiato continues, “We just don’t have the ability to pick someone out in the community, unless he’s unemployed, to run the community. And that’s exactly what’s happened. I know there’s a joke going around the community. If the strong mayor would pass, we’d wanna be at Gina [Dutcher]’s office the next day to see who lines [up] for [pause] trying to, uh, become the mayor. Those that would be unemployed.”
Where did this mentality in our city come from that suggests we’re not capable of sustaining a reasonable democratic system of governance? Following this line of thought, we’re just smart enough to elect those currently in power, but beyond that, we cannot be trusted to choose or participate wisely.
Council’s decision to impose their own opposing option on the ballot is yet another example of this. Kudos, however, to Councilmen Thurston and Atencio for standing up against the way this matter was handled, regardless of their personal feelings. In an August 25th Chieftain story, the two “said council had no business bringing such a question to the public.” They went on to say that, had Council done the same as CALM and gone to the public, gathering signatures for their proposal of a weak mayor ballot option, they would then have been happy to support it.
The ballot options are sure to be a hot topic of conversation in the coming months, and I’d expect that, one way or another, we’ve yet to see the most dramatic developments in this political soap opera.
Stay tuned, stay informed, and most of all, mind your gene pool, Pueblo.