Local

Ridenour advises more mayoral power

Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour wants the city to strengthen his office, but he wouldn't call it a request to make him a "strong" mayor.

Now, Modesto's city manager retains the bulk of the power in City Hall. The person who holds that job can hire department heads, set budget proposals and discipline employees.

Other cities, such as Fresno, rely on "strong" mayors who can fire a city manager without the council's consent, draft budgets and veto council decisions.

Ridenour on Monday said Modesto is not ready to replace its "strong city manager" system with a "strong mayor."

Ridenour said it would be appropriate to give the mayor's office a bigger say in writing the $324 million city budget and in advising public employees who answer to the city manager.

He and other supporters of strengthening the mayor's office say doing so could improve accountability to voters, few of whom are aware of the city manager's authority.

"I'm not looking for something for me," Ridenour said. "I'm looking for something that works for the citizens."

Ridenour addressed his comments to Modesto's Charter Review Committee, a 10-person volunteer group that has looked at ways to improve city government over the past year and a half.

The group is writing a report to the City Council that could shape a 2008 ballot measure calling for greater mayoral power and increased compensation for elected officials.

Ridenour stressed that his opinions were not rooted in his relationship with City Manager George Britton.

Ridenour and Councilman Will O'Bryant told the charter committee that Britton does not stand in their way when they seek to speak with Modesto employees.

Ridenour furthermore has a seat at weekly staff meetings that were off limits to mayors before the council hired Britton in March 2005.

"I don't have to go to George and say, 'Mother, may I, can I talk to a department head?' " Ridenour said. "At the same time, I can talk, but I can't do anything."

Ridenour is running unopposed for re-election this year, giving him another four years to guide the city.

Britton, however, is retiring in January. A new city manager could set different rules for the mayor's interaction with public employees.

The charter committee's ongoing discussion about council authority could inhibit the city's ability to hire Britton's successor.

Ridenour said the council likely will have to hire an interim city manager until voters adopt or reject a measure calling for increased mayoral authority.

Ridenour favors most of the steps Stockton took in 2000 to increase the power of its mayor's office, such as requiring the mayor and city manager to work together on budget proposals.

Former Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto said the changes forced him into the room with the city manager, which in turn gave the City Council a better picture of what was going into the budget well before the annual hearings where the financial plan became public.

That gave the mayor and council members an opportunity to shape the budget to achieve the goals they were elected to accomplish, Podesto said.

With a system like Modesto's, the city manager "can tell the mayor and the City Council to pound sand, even though you're elected," Podesto said.

O'Bryant told the charter committee he wanted the mayor or the council to have a greater handle on department heads who answer to the city manager. O'Bryant said he was frustrated that the council's only disciplinary option is firing the city manager.

"If you have a bad department head or if things are falling apart, you don't want to have to threaten the city manager every time something happens," O'Bryant said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.


AT A GLANCE

Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour on Monday said the city should give his office more authority. Here's a look at what powers different cities give their mayors.

MODESTO: The mayor essentially has no more power than City Council members, though the mayor manages meetings and represents the city in public. The mayor shares the council's authority to hire the city manager, the city attorney and the city clerk. In emergencies, the mayor can direct the city manager without consulting the council.

STOCKTON: Stockton's mayor is a voting member of the City Council who also has the power to hire people for work in his office, make budget recommendations and advise the city manager on policy decisions.

FRESNO: Fresno has a "strong mayor" system that makes him or her a sort of president of the city. The mayor is not a voting member of the City Council, and he or she can veto the council's decisions. The mayor has the sole authority to hire the city manager and he or she makes budget proposals.

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