OPINION: Should Voters Elect the Mayor?

Falls Church Times Staff

June 27, 2010

Last month the City of Falls Church held a municipal election.  Turnout was 24%.  Next month it will hold another election.  The turnout will be 100%, but only seven people will be voting.

On July 1, as is required every two years, the City Council will choose one of its members as mayor and another as vice mayor.  The mayor will chair the many meetings and work sessions held during the coming term and represent the City at various public functions.  The vice mayor will perform these duties in the mayor’s absence.

The selection process often requires the Council members to play a game of “Let’s Make a Deal” in order for one of them to secure the required four or more votes to achieve election.  Some critics, including at least one member of the current Council, have suggested that election of the mayor might better be left to the City’s voters.  Indeed, it seems inconsistent to continue the practice of a Council-selected mayor after municipal elections were recently moved from May to November, specifically to give voice to more voters.  If having a greater turnout regarding Council membership is so important, why is it less important for the selection of mayor?

The counter-arguments are that those serving are best qualified to choose their chairman and deputy and that some deal making is an inherent part of the legislative process.  However, deals made in connection with these choices may obligate members to subsequently cast some of their votes more on the basis of loyalty than on principle.   There also is the possibility of the Council becoming less collegial and falling into two distinct blocs, based on the division in the mayoral vote.

Some suggest that the mayor should be the candidate receiving the most votes in the last election.  That is a flawed system, however.  First, it would never be clear if the voters wanted a candidate to be Mayor rather than just a member of the Council.  Moreover, it would always exclude the three or four Council members who were not candidates in the last election due to staggered member terms.

Removing the mayoral election from the Council and trusting the choice to voters clearly would elevate the office.   It also would be more democratic and probably would increase election turnout.  As for the vice mayor, the other six Council members could rotate through the position in order of seniority, each serving four months during the 24 month term. 

Such changes would require amending the City’s Charter.  While the Council has the authority to take such action, the final decision in the matter should be left to voters via a referendum.  Clearly, that is not possible for this year’s mayoral selection, and in that regard we urge the seven members of the Council to choose a person with the vision to lead us forward.  But in subsequent elections, the voters should have the opportunity to decide whose vision they prefer.

The views expressed in OPINION columns are those of their authors.  They do not necessarily reflect the views of other Falls Church Times staff members or of the paper as a whole.

June 27, 2010 


19 Responses to “OPINION: Should Voters Elect the Mayor?”

  1. FCC resident on June 27th, 2010 4:34 am

    I agree! Let the voters decide our Mayor.

  2. Victoria Kwasiborski (Falls Church City) on June 27th, 2010 6:01 am

    I think a key question to consider is whether the mayoral position holds any exclusive executive authority in the city. If the position is primarily the head of the city council, then our current provisions are just fine. If the mayoral position includes executive authority then it should be separated from the city council and we should eliminate the city manager position because, after all, that’s the function of a mayor.

  3. Peggy Monahan, Falls Church City on June 27th, 2010 7:40 am

    In a word, yes.

  4. Kathleen Nixon on June 27th, 2010 8:27 am

    Yes the voters should vote for the mayor. The behind the closed doors practice is not in keeping with an open and transparent government administration and is about time that we start doing so.

  5. Jan B Hertzsch on June 27th, 2010 8:52 am

    I don’t think this is a burning question. It does not seem to have a huge positive or negative on either side. The mayor has to build consensus on council and getting elected by them would seem to be a valid test of his/her ability to do that. Getting elected as mayor would seem to be an effort in shaking hands and looking pretty (for either gender).

    We don’t elect department heads and no one calls that un-democratic. Let the council decide who will lead them.

  6. Ron Peppe (Falls Church City) on June 27th, 2010 11:01 am

    Since I am in the middle of the current process, I am happy to weigh in with some suggestions based on my experience. I have been through this many times- During the almost 7 years I chaired school boards, I had to be selected for the role every single year, under various selection methods, from committees to open debates, to arguments about who got the most votes. There are pros and cons of any method of selection. The current system is where most boards and councils end up, although there are certainly ways to make what is going on leading up to the selection more available to the public. Probably the most positive thing about a direct election is that it ends the speculation, unfounded or not, that always seems to be there about who traded what for what vote.

    I agree with the tenor of many of the comments that it really should depend on an examination of the roles- exactly what do the mayor and vice mayor do. The current charter is very clear about the roles- facilitate the meetings. There is certainly a perception out there that the position involves much more than that, and it may well have evolved into more than that over the years, but that can be fixed without a charter change.

    When it comes to the role of the mayor, I am concerned about the talk, also echoed in this opinion piece, of the mayor needing a “vision.” Frankly, one of the reasons for the discontent leading up to the last election results is that we had more competing visions than we knew what to do with. The mayor, and each council member, do not need a vision- the COUNCIL needs a vision. “Vision” from the top down does not work. It especially does not work when pushed by the person running the meeting. What works is a council that articulates a collective vision (and this includes making hard choices and not splitting the baby with a vision that includes everything from A-Z), and then focuses on goal setting and resource allocation to get us there.

    The mayor and vice mayor DO play an important role in this vision setting and “getting us there” part. This is because ALL work by the council is done (at least it should be done) in open pubic meetings. Many elected bodies play the game of phone tag and private meetings smaller than a quorum to skirt these requirements in often well intentioned attempts to “build consensus” outside of meetings. The problem with this approach is that it leads to perceptions and suspicions, even if not the reality, that the work and important discussions are not taking place in public, and that decisions and being made before the council members even sit down around the table. What is even worse is when such a process revolves around “how do we get 4 votes lined up ahead of time” so that all the public sees in the meetings are counter-arguments to foregone conclusions. How many times did we hear that complaint during the election?

    THIS is why the mayor and vice mayor are important. They can make sure the public work is done in public, and they can make sure the work is done openly and efficiently during those meetings. They can also make sure that the entire council sets the agenda, that everyone gets all the information needed, and that everyone does his or her homework before the meetings.

    I know everyone thinks the big problem facing the city and the council is lack of money, but the most important resource available to the council is not money, it is time. The mayor and vice mayor fill the critical role of making sure the meetings are well run, that everyone has a chance to speak up, and that the council does not waste this precious time. There is consensus building that takes place during meetings, but it is more a matter of experience in group concensus building rather than pushing a particular vision from the top. One thing I have learned facilitating meetings all these years is to make sure we get everyone’s idea on the table, and not to weigh them against my own preconceived opinions.

    I really think we have a great group on the council. Everyone is there for the right reasons and committed to working together. The challenge we will face is that working together is a lot more than agreeing to be nice to each other. There are going to be disagreements and splits, but those discussions should take place in well run public meetings where we get everything on the table, make decisions, and move on.

    I think the direct election idea at least needs to be explored, and should ultimately be up to the public. It would probably also require us to examine the duties- a different role might make more sense if we had a direct election, but then we do need to also figure out how it fits in with the city manager role. If we were opening the door to a charter change, I would still push to cut the council and school board to 5 seats while we were at it, and, yes, I would be willing give up my seat to make that happen, but that is an argument for another day!


  7. barb cram on June 27th, 2010 11:02 am


  8. Mike Novotny on June 27th, 2010 2:39 pm

    Ron, I commend your focus on process, but we should expect more of the mayor than running meetings and being a good facilitator. The mayor is our highest representative and “should” have a plan or vision before seeking such a role. Effective leadership is as much about initiating the discussion as it is about facilitating it.

    Having a general election for mayor in the future is a good idea, perhaps that can be discussed for the next term. In Leesburg, they have a direct election for mayor every two years, and council members are elected for four-year terms. In this way, members gain at least two years experience serving on council before choosing to run for mayor.

  9. Charlie Anderson, City of Falls Church on June 27th, 2010 3:13 pm

    Anyone who thinks that the last few mayors have been figureheads or facilitators are smoking something. The way it works right now is that the mayor controls the agenda, and if something doesn’t make it on the agenda, it isn’t discussed publicly. The current mayor makes sure that issues important to her only come to a vote when she knows the votes exist to pass. Therefore, there must be a lot of phone calls and small non “quorum” discussions happening. Mr. Peppe’s idea of ideal council/mayor functioning does not exist presently.

  10. Ron Peppe (Falls Church City) on June 27th, 2010 3:27 pm

    Charlie- that was exactly my point.. Do we want more of the same, or do we want to change this? Many folks like it the way it is, but there are alternatives. In my experience, you can get a lot more done and pull together doing it the way I suggested, but I do understand how it works now. If the board wants to keep doing it this way, I guess we will.

    Mike- I understand your position but I do disagree based on my experience. Every member of the council gets one vote, every council member should have an equal opportunity to put ideas on the table. The mayor certainly during meetings has to do some work to make sure everyone speaks up and all points are considered, but the mayor only speaks officially for the collective will of the board. I heard council members complain in the past that they wanted to make it clear the mayor did not speak for them- does this change depending on who is in charge?

  11. Charlie Anderson, City of Falls Church on June 27th, 2010 3:46 pm

    Well Ron, then I hope you are able to persuade your colleagues to make you the mayor so that they can all be heard. If you were mayor, would Webb’s election date discussion have been brought onto the agenda with more time for study and discussion rather than when most politically expedient? Are you suggesting that other potential candidates will run things the old way?

  12. Mike Novotny on June 27th, 2010 6:39 pm

    I’m with Charlie that the current mayor exercised too much control over the agenda. And that not only controlled the discussion but affected where staff devoted its resources, a pretty big deal. But that’s one end of the spectrum, and I don’t think we want to see that kind of control again.

    Ron, you’re advocating legislating purely by committee and the mayor should only be there to run meetings and try to build consensus. I’m not knocking your approach, it works in some settings. But that’s the other end of the spectrum.

    For a City facing some pretty big issues, I’d like to see the mayor fall more in the middle of the spectrum. Based on my experience, the most effective leaders are not only ones that offer an open/equitable process but also have a plan. They are interested in arriving at a final plan based on the group, but at least offer a starting point for discussion.

    Interestingly enough, if we had direct elections for mayor, I’m sure every candidate would put forward their plan/vision as mayor as a basis for discussion.

  13. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on June 27th, 2010 9:00 pm

    Can someone explain how directly electing the mayor could actually work? If voting for mayor happened at the same time as voting for members of Council would candidates have to run for one or the other? Could the run for both? Would sitting Council members not up for re-election possibly by running for Mayor?

    Directly electing the mayor is intriguing to me but it’s not at all clear how it would actually work. I also think that it’s probably not worthwhile directly electing the mayor if the mayor has the same responsibilities they do right now – seems like you’d want the mayor to be a bit more in control (a full time mayor that serves as the City Manager is an interesting idea but sounds a lot different from how things work right now).

    Every time Ron mentions it I like to chime in that I support the idea of a five member City Council (and School Board).

    I can see both Ron’s and Mike’s points about the role of the mayor. I have no first hand experience with how Mayor Gardner ran things behind the scenes but it does seem unfortunate if the mayor exerts too much control over what gets placed on the agenda. I’d love to see a mayor who has some solid views for how they see the City progressing but who isn’t opposed to other ideas or suggestions and it willing to let those ideas be debated in public.

  14. David F. Snyder on June 28th, 2010 7:26 am

    Your piece on the direct election of the mayor is well considered. The City’s charter envisioned a narrow role for the mayor, but that role has grown dramatically over the past decade while the selection method has not changed. The method for selecting Council leadership is based on closed-door deal making and tends to reflect personal ambition rather than who received the largest number of votes or who is the most fit, based upon experience and results. The present method also ignores whether the person has ever been held accountable for his or her actions through reelection.

    A charter change that gives the voters the right to select Council leadership is likely the best solution. Meantime, any candidate for mayor or vice mayor should commit in writing to assure that all Council members will be treated equally and have equal access to all information. Further, this written commitment needs to include that representational and ceremonial duties, as well as taking the lead in communicating with the public and news media, will be the task of the Council member who has subject area responsibility. In these ways, we can begin to correct some of the issues surrounding our current system until a charter change is considered and accomplished.

  15. Hillel Weinberg on June 28th, 2010 11:48 am

    It is crucial that the Mayor and Vice Mayor always have the support of the Council, who in fact collectively hold all the real power.

    Direct election of the Mayor could easily lead to a situation where the Mayor and the Council majority are on quite different wavelengths. That should be avoided.

    If we HAD to make a change to avoid the problem of a Mayor who might abuse his or her power (which would not be avoided by direct election and might even be exacerbated by it), the Council should be given the power to replace the Mayor and Vice Mayor by majority vote, and that motion should be privileged, at least after some notice is given.

  16. John Dunbar, Falls Church City on June 28th, 2010 11:48 am

    It seems like the “Rules of the Council” (link below) describes only one duty for the mayor or preciding officer: limiting the time a person can speak. It says any member can place an item of business in the agenda. Perhaps additional mayoral powers are described elsewhere? Some people above seem to say the mayor needs more control but also say that the current mayor practiced too much control. I have not yet been convinced of any need for a charter-change.


  17. Barry Buschow on June 28th, 2010 12:44 pm

    As part of my campaign I advocated for the Citizens to elect the Mayor. The power should reside with the voters so the voters can have the final say rather than 4 Council members controlling the issues. I also agree we should reduce membership to 5 members so that staff is not taken in so many directions and consensus and decisions can be made more effectively. I plan to bring this up during the next legislative agenda period. Perhaps we have the power do to it ourselves but it should have full opportunity for the voters to discuss. As is done in Fairfax City, you run for either Mayor or Council. If you do not get elected Mayor you do not get a seat on Council. Only those who feel fully qualified and can articulate it to the public run for mayor.

  18. Dan Maller, City of Falls Church on June 28th, 2010 2:02 pm

    As David said, the Mayor’s role has grown by custom more than by code, the Charter says the Mayor is the ceremonial head of government; if you believe government is all about the show then you could argue that the Mayor here has tremendous power. The Mayor question is only one of several issues related to government structure and process that merit a discussion. I hope that the new council will be willing to devote substantive time and/or appoint a Task Group to look at a series of measures that would give the Mayor and/or Council more direct influence over the administration. Almost everybody has some form of a grievance about the conduct of our government, so this would give people a forum to discuss specific proposals.

  19. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on June 28th, 2010 3:31 pm

    Dan seems to hit on one of the ideas for changing the mayor’s power – allow the mayor to task City staff. It seems like right now there are times when staff doesn’t get consistent direction from council, or it’s not clear which tasks have priority. If the mayor had final say on that then it might make things more efficient.

    Barry’s description of how things work in Fairfax City is not appealing to me. If you had two strong candidates running for mayor only one would win and the other would be totally out of the mix. Actually, if sitting council members could run for mayor, and remain on council if they lost the mayoral election, then that might be interesting. It would tend to encourage people to serve at least two years before going for mayor. I’m not sure how you’d deal with the open council seat if a sitting council person was elected mayor.

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