Strange women and other options
King Arthur: I am your king.
Woman: Well I didn’t vote for you.
King Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.
Woman: Well how’d you become king then?
King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.
Dennis: Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
King Arthur: Be quiet!
Dennis: Oh, but you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.
King Arthur: Shut up!
Dennis: Oh but if I went ’round sayin’ I was Emperor, just because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away.
— from Monty Python’s “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”
One of the first remembrances of a serious discussion overheard by a fresh and green newspaper reporter back in 1992 was of folks debating Fort Smith’s form of municipal governance. Much less fresh and more black and blue than green, this former newspaper reporter continues to find the discussions interesting — even though such discussions have matured little beyond the points and counterpoints of 1992.
Fort Smith, with its manager-council form of government, is not alone in this debate.
Save Our Tulsa and the Tulsa city council are now engaged in separate actions that would alter the city’s form of government, according to this report from the Tulsa World. Save Our Tulsa wants to keep the mayor as city manager, give the mayor a seat on the council, expand the number of council seats and reduce council terms to two years.
The city council wants more of a city manager-council form of government. They also want the city attorney to be an elected position.
In Vernon, N.J., there is a group gathering signatures to change the form of government so the elected mayor is the city CEO. They are opposed by those who say the city requires a professional manager.
Further north in Sarasota Springs, N.Y., a citizen group wants to move away from the elected mayor and to a city council-professional manager form of government. According to the local newspaper: “The newly proposed document would set the framework for a city council-professional manager form of government in which a professional municipal manager, who would manage the city’s daily operations, would be hired by a directly elected city council, which would vote on all legislative matters.”
Folks in East Ridge, Tenn., also have angst about their government. The city, near Chattanooga, is without a city manager who resigned when the bottom fell out of the budget. East Ridge Mayor Mike Steele, who is not running for re-election, advocates for a strong mayor-city council form of government.
And we could go on with such examples. But that would be pointless, because just a few examples show a clear trend: The form-of-government grass is always greener on the other side of the political-winds-of-the-moment fence.
The thing is, forms of government are like country songs. A catchy tune is a guaranteed hit if the lyrics include tractors or drinking beer or love gone wrong or love gone right or drinking sweet ice tea on a front porch while cleaning your favorite gun or drinking beer while loading your gun while commiserating about love gone wrong. The recipe is simple. Catchy tune. Pretty faces with pretty voices. Clever cliche use.
A form of government will work (as much as governments can work) if it includes responsible and active citizen involvement, a path to regularly elect the person and/or persons who make decisions and reasonable checks and balances that are known, transparent and simple.
With the country song, the quality of the singer and band is key. The “Devil Went Down To Georgia” is a kick-ass song, but if you throw in a fiddle player with two months of practice and someone with my singing skills, folks will kick ass if the song is not immediately stopped. In that case, it’s not the song that failed, rather it’s the execution of the song that failed. Blaming the form of government, then, is more polite and often more politically convenient than to blame the human forms in government.
Also, the brilliantly silly British troupe was essentially — if not wholly — correct: “power derives from a mandate from the masses.” We have several reasonable and workable methods by which to be municipally governed. The methods are efficient only as much as the masses mandate. The recipe is simple. Representative elections. Many faces involved (masses mandating). Quality participants (good leadership).
Early this week, The City Wire will conduct a pre-election survey that will include a question about the Fort Smith form of government. We’ll release results later in the week.
It will be interesting to see if we want to alter the recipe. Or better yet, maybe we prefer Kings appointed by watery tarts, moistened bints and strange women.