Beware of arrogance

Strong-mayor vs. weak-mayor form of government

Keith C. Burris
Keith C. Burris

A recent letter to the editor by Tom Mathias of Toledo makes a point to consider.

He says the strong mayor form of government, “describes the odor of arrogance that each strong mayor has given us.” Mr. Mathias also writes: “The city manager form of government had more checks and balances and epitomized everybody’s favorite word — transparency.”

I don't buy that there were more checks and balances. I would argue there were fewer. And the city manager form was even less transparent. I remember Phil Hawkey.

But a strong mayor does have a lot of power. And as Lord Acton, the great 19th century English historian, said, “ Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.” Power begets arrogance — supreme confidence in one's own rectitude and prerogatives. The arrogant man is never wrong. Just ask him.

That's why the American Founders embraced checks and balances — countervailing power invested in other branches. The president's power is checked by Congress and the courts. But a strong mayor system is, intentionally, not balanced. It purposely tilts the power toward the executive branch. Of the three modern strong mayors, only Jack Ford was seldom called arrogant.

Incumbent Mayor Mike Bell has often been so indicted. And a second term will not make him more humble. He will be isolated by virtue of term-limits. He will not face the voters again, so he is unlikely to care much if the voters are upset with him. He doesn't care much now. Mayor Bell's view is that the mayor is a command officer: He should make tough decisions and stick by them, with little hope of appeal. That sounds like arrogance and it is: We don't have to talk to you.

Challenger Auditor Anita Lopez gets good marks for running the auditor's office, but some of those who have dealt with her there, and some who have worked there speaking off the record, say Ms. Lopez wields power with a heavy hand. She is an able administrator, but that heavy hand makes some people shudder.

I am one. A good mayor must have a bit of the kick-ball captain, or Our Gang leader, in him. But not the bully. A bully with power is an abuser who loses his ability to manage.

Councilman Joe McNamara seems like he would be least likely to become arrogant. He may be the most aware of the pitfalls and illusions of power.

Councilman Mike Collins has a reputation as someone who tells you how the watch is made when you ask him what time it is. But that's not arrogance. It's pedantry. He listens. His training as a policeman perhaps taught him that. His old-school manners and religious faith perhaps reinforce it.

But Lord Acton was right, power changes everyone who has it.

The antidote is an attentive public, a vigilant press, and a City Council that takes its watchdog function seriously.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.