By John Pickerill
Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is why the America tradition has always been separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial.
By separating powers we citizens are better protected against government corruption or tyrannical behavior. One branch of government can hold the other in check.
But somewhere along the line Indiana got away from this tradition when it comes to city government, specifically the chief executive of our third-class cities. Indiana has handed mayors there practically unchecked power. And the one organization you think would hold the mayor in check, the city legislature, has been neutered by state law.
State law dictates that the mayor of a third-class city shall be the presiding officer of the city council (Indiana Code 36-4-6-8). This is astounding. Consider if Donald Trump served as both the President of the United States and the Speaker of the House in Congress.
As presiding officer, the mayor in these cities gets to set the legislative agenda for the city council. He runs their meetings. My city has compounded this error by giving the mayor power to pick and choose which of the city council members get assigned to which committees (City Ordinance 31.04). In other words, the mayor can reward city council members who agree with him by assigning them to the most influential committees, i.e., the fiscal affairs committee, and punish those who don’t by assigning them to the less desirable committees.
The biggest check-and-balance the city council has over the mayor is power of the purse. But today the mayor can circumvent it by packing the fiscal affairs committee with his buddies.
State law (IC 36-4-9) also hands third-class mayors the power to appoint a huge number of people to the city’s boards and commissions. In my city the mayor appoints all members of the board of works (approves all city contracts), park and recreation board, economic development commission, housing authority, downtown revitalization advisory commission and Sugar Creek Natural Park advisory commission.
And the mayor appoints a controlling majority on the planning commission, board of zoning appeals, utility service board and redevelopment commission. He appoints every department head. He also has the power to suspend or remove any city officer, deputy or employee (IC 36-4-11-2). All this power is in one man’s hands. It gives a mayor incredible influence over every city appointee, officer, department head, deputy, employee and contractor. (It’s worth noting that the president of our county commission is also a city employee.)
So how do we fix it? Again, in the American tradition the city council would be independent of the mayor. The president of the City Council should preside over the city council. The city council should assign its members to its committees. The committee members should elect their own chairmen. In the American tradition, the city council would have equal power as the mayor, and would have checks and balances over the mayor. The mayor would nominate his department heads but their actual appointment should be approved by the city council. The city council, since its members represent the different districts or wards of the city, should appoint the majority on boards and commissions, not the mayor. But the mayor should retain his present veto power over city council legislation to keep his check over the city council.
Some will complain that this would make government in the smaller cities inefficient and bogged down. Yes, that’s true, but typically the most efficient government is the one most dangerous to the liberties of its citizens.
John Pickerill, a resident of Crawfordsville and past chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, wrote this for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. A graduate of Purdue University and the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, Pickerill retired from the U.S. Navy with the rank of Commander. Send comments to [email protected]