For a long time Denver and, much more recently, Colorado Springs have been the only cities in the state with what municipal-government wonks call a “strong mayor” form of government. That’s where the mayor serves as the city’s full-time, hands-on chief executive, appointing department heads, running day-to-day operations and generally presiding over a separate branch of government from the city council.
Most other Colorado cities have what is inelegantly called a “weak mayor,” i.e., more of a strategist in chief who helps guide the overall direction of city government but leaves its routine operations to a city manager. There are assorted variations of the weak mayor; many involve the mayor sitting in a part-time capacity as a member of the city council and having little more power than the other council members. A first among equals; a chief parliamentarian who gavels down meetings and makes appointments to the parks board.
And then there’s Pueblo. It has no mayor at all. According to the Colorado Municipal League, Pueblo and Steamboat Springs are the state’s only two municipalities that have chosen to forgo a mayor entirely in favor of a council president.
For the second time in less than a decade, some Puebloans are trying to change that. In 2009, Pueblo voters rejected a ballot proposal to take on a strong mayor; now, reports the Pueblo Chieftain’s Peter Roper, civic leaders might run it up the flagpole again. Only, this time, those advocating for a mayor haven’t yet agreed on whether to ask voters for a strong or a weak one:
Nick Gradisar, Pueblo lawyer and member of the Board of Water Works, has been touting that change for years, arguing that Pueblo needs a leader with real power to shake up the city and get it growing again.
“And if that person can’t deliver on their agenda, voters could choose somebody new,” he explained in a recent interview.
Not so fast, argues Ralph Williams and Mike Salardino.
They are part of a second mayoral group that wants to steer around the “strong” style of mayor. They agree that Pueblo needs a mayor — someone with that prestigious title to be the city’s leader and symbol — but they don’t want to give that person the authority to pick city department heads, write the budget and be a full-time boss.
Where will it all lead? Perhaps no further than it did last time. Maybe not even that far. In any event, Roper’s overview of the debate is an enlightening read, pointing out among other things how the right person in a “weak” mayor’s shoes can be every bit as strong as a strong mayor, only with less power, pomp, bureaucracy and pay.
Williams and Salardino point to a Front Range legend — long-time Colorado Springs Mayor Bob Isaac — who led, bullied, cajoled, lectured and shaped that city’s government for five terms, a total of 20 years.
The late Isaac had a deep, gravely voice — the result of about 1 million cigarettes — and he was also a shrewd lawyer. No one doubted who was in charge in Colorado Springs. Yet he was a weak mayor: that city still relied on a manager to run the day-to-day operations.
… “Bob Isaac was the leader in Colorado Springs, and look how much that city grew during his years,” he said. “Pueblo would still need professional city management, but a weak mayor would provide that leader, as well. The best of both.”