Jeff Jardine

Is push for strong mayor in Modesto in the offing as council makes changes at the top?

As any city manager knows, the job is a week-to-week proposition. Or at least election to election.

It doesn’t necessarily matter how well the manager performs. When half of the city council plus one wants him/her out, he or she is out, getting a decent buyout package as part of the exit strategy. It is that simple.

That Modesto City Manager Jim Holgersson’s job is imperiled reaffirms the precarious nature of the position due to the built-in power struggle of the council/manager system and illustrates the impact of personality conflicts when it comes to running a city. The average tenure of Modesto’s five CMs since 1991 has been 5.4 years, with Ed Tewes lasting eight (1991-99) before a police gun scandal cost him his job. If Holgersson goes – he arrived in May 2014 – he would join Tewes and Jack Crist among those being forced out while George Britton retired and Greg Nyhoff took a job in Oxnard.

If the trend holds, the council will name an interim replacement for Holgersson, conduct a nationwide search for a “permanent” manager and then repeat the process roughly 5.4 years from now. But will Modesto’s next city manager be its last?

As the possible exit strategy for Holgersson began to play out this week, I began hearing rumblings that there could be a push in the not-so-distant future to ask voters to change the city to a strong mayor system. Mayor Ted Brandvold said he’s heard the same. “But that’s not not coming from me,” he told me.

In Modesto’s current system, the mayor is a voting member of the council. The council hires the city manager responsible for the day-to-day operation of the city, and hires the various department heads including the chief of police.

A strong mayor is in charge of hiring and firing department heads, has veto power but no vote, and is responsible for developing a vision for the city.

Fresno residents voted in a strong mayor system in 1993 and it went into effect in 1997.

“The civic and business leaders were dissatisfied with the direction the city was going (in 1993),” said Ashley Swearengin, a two-term Fresno mayor in the strong mayor system. “There was lots of negativity, lots of finger pointing and blame between the city council and the city manager. (Voters) decided there ought to be one elected CEO who is directly accountable to the public.”

Fresno is the largest city in California’s Central Valley. Sacramento voters, however, in 2010 refused then-Mayor Kevin Johnson’s push for a strong mayor system and continues with a council/city manager system. Former Sacramento Mayor Anne Rudin counseled against the strong mayor system, telling PublicCeo that “The mayor’s race can be a popularity contest that doesn’t ensure the winner has public policy skills that a professional manager would learn by coming up through the ranks.”

Modesto, population 207,000, did strengthen the mayor’s powers somewhat nine years ago by giving the mayor more authority over the budget as part of Measure M, which passed with 78 percent of the vote in 2008. But further expanding the mayor’s powers could take years to orchestrate and also would require voter approval.

So for now, if Holgersson indeed is out, expect the council to hire a new “permanent” city manager for the next 5.4 years.

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