Gainesville officials soon may discuss changing the city's government structure to give more power to the mayor and have that person be elected by voters instead of appointed by the City Council.
City leaders plan to hold an in-depth discussion of the issue, which would require a change of the city's charter, at the council's annual retreat in January.
The discussion was first raised at a meeting earlier this month with state legislators who represent Hall County. In response to an editorial in The Times, Rep. Carl Rogers asked council members what they thought about changing the city's form of government.
"With council members rotating on an annual basis as mayor, rather than having a chief executive elected to that position, there is a void of administrative leadership beyond the appointed position of city manager," the Dec. 7 editorial read. "It is time for voters to have a voice in electing a mayor."
The "strong mayor" form of government would give the city's chief executive the most authority in the city and the power to appoint and dismiss department heads without council approval. In that form of government, the city manager only answers to the mayor.
This type of governance, with the mayor as the elected chief executive, is modeled after the structure of the federal government set out in the U.S. Constitution. It is used by 62 percent of the country's 50 largest cities, according to the Strong Mayor-Council Institute, which conducts research and consultation on the topic of strong mayor governance.
Gainesville's current setup only awards the mayor ceremonial duties, with administrative decisions made by the council as a whole. This "weak mayor" form of government, with the city manager as the appointed chief executive, is modeled after corporate structure. It is used by 36 percent of the country's 50 largest cities, according to the Strong Mayor-Council Institute.
In response to The Times' editorial, Rogers quizzed council members on moving to a strong mayoral government in a meeting between the council and legislators on Dec. 11.
All council members but current Mayor Myrtle Figueras and Robert "Bob" Hamrick seemed amenable to the suggestion.
"I think that's probably a good idea," Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner said on Dec. 11.
Councilman George Wangemann agreed.
"I think it's come to it with the size city we have, and the more I talk to people in the community the more I hear that people favor the idea of being able to elect their own mayor," Wangemann said. "I think it's a populist kind of idea whose time has come."
Wangemann told state legislators that he brought up the idea several years ago, but that city attorney James E. "Bubba" Palmour told him then that the shift from a weak-mayor council to a strong-mayor council would require a major change to the city's charter.
"It kind of fell on deaf ears at the time, and everybody just dropped the idea," Wangemann said.
But Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick, first elected to the council in 1969, said the current form of government has worked well for the city.
"I doubt seriously that if we had just the elected mayor that we would have ever had a black mayor in the city," Hamrick said. "The rotation, hey, we're all represented, and it works well."
Figueras held the belief that an elected official should have to gain some experience on the council before becoming the mayor.
"I don't necessarily agree," Figueras said. "I am the current mayor and I think that the city benefits from having experience of a person to know what is going on with the council before they're called mayor."
When Rogers asked the council if the question to change the city government structure should go to the voters, members Bruner, Wangemann and Danny Dunagan all said "yes."
Figueras, however, said she felt voters might be confused by the question on the ballot.
"People don't understand what it is, though, that they're voting for," Figueras said. "They think they're voting for a power structure, but it's not."
Figueras broached the subject again at the council's work session Thursday. She told council members if they wanted to consider changing the city's form of government, they needed to discuss it on their terms, not legislators'.
"They may think that they run Gainesville when they ask about an elected mayor," Figueras said.
Figueras restated her opinion that the city's current government structure works better than a mayor-council form, but she told council members she needed to know if they felt differently.
"I need to know if you all would like to go to the elected mayor thing ..." Figueras said. "We need to decide it here. It should not be decided by a state legislator."
Bruner told Figueras that the council needed more information before deciding on a complete upheaval of the government. She suggested discussing the idea at a later time when city officials had more knowledge about the pros and cons of such a shift.
"I just don't feel like we have the information to say today," Bruner said.
Dunagan and Wangemann both held to the legislators' idea that Gainesville's electorate should decide.
"It's something that's been brought up to me ... like the legislators' said, let the citizens decide," Dunagan said.