Mayor means one thing in most cities, where the chief executive is the face of the government, the go-to person for problems big and small, from potholes to disasters.
It means something else in Gainesville, where the mayor is merely an honorary title rotated among the five City Council members. The executive role is filled by the city manager, an unelected position appointed by the council. For better or worse, the city has been managed this way since anyone can remember.
State Rep. Carl Rogers is among those who thinks it's time to consider a change. He has proposed a bill in the state legislature to allow Gainesville residents to vote in a nonbinding referendum on whether they prefer the current system or a mayoral form of government. A second ballot question would gauge voters' views on electing a school board chairman as well.
"I feel like the voters of the city ought to be able to vote it up or down, and I predict they will overwhelmingly vote in favor," Rogers said.
An unscientific Times online poll earlier this week indicated that may be true. It received 189 votes in favor of a change, only 30 supporting the current setup. That doesn't mean much, but at least indicates that letting residents vote their choice is a worthy notion.
But council members aren't keen on such a change, based on their initial reactions. They believe the current system works just fine. They also don't care to have council members elected by districts instead of at-large, a potential result of a citywide-chosen mayor.
Said Councilman George Wangemann: "We rotate it; no one person gets power for too long. I like the at-large system, because we all work together, and we don't try to just grab money or things for our own little district."
Said Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick, a 40-year veteran of city government: "All I know is the council-manager form of government that we've operated under for, I know, over 50 years has worked most satisfactorily — particularly in recent years — and therefore, why change?"
Said Mayor Myrtle Figueras: "My opposition is to the state deciding what the city should do. It is not up to Carl to decide that. It should be the council who decides whether or not to put it up (on a ballot)."
Perhaps, but since the change affects those who must approve it, that wouldn't be likely. Anyway, Rogers isn't shoving the idea down the city's throat; he just wants to give residents a chance to offer their preference in a nonbinding vote. If residents like things the way they are, the idea will go away. But if they vote for a change, council would be obligated to pursue it.
That doesn't mean it has to happen overnight. City leaders can discuss all of the possible ramifications, including district representation by council members and what that might entail. All we're talking about now is letting Gainesvillians vote their preference. There isn't a good reason to deny them that.
The key argument in favor of electing both a mayor and a school board chairman is accountability. The current system of shared power works fine until a key decision needs to be made. As we've seen in the last year, that kind of leadership often has been lacking.
In two of the city's less-than-shining moments of 2008 - the resignation of city manager Bryan Shuler and the school system budget deficit that resulted in the firing of superintendent Steven Ballowe - the absence of a true executive was evident.
Decision-making was faulty, information was not provided honestly or effectively and fingers were pointed in every direction.
In both cases, city residents were left to wonder who was in charge. Yet when leadership is lacking because there is no true leader, it's hard to know who to blame. The buck had nowhere to stop.
Wangemann believes the current system works because no one member tries to grab too much power. That's a plus when it's business as usual. Yet there are times when one person needs to take charge and make difficult decisions, even if that official is vested with a greater degree of governmental control than some might prefer.
One such case would be a major crisis. We all remember Rudy Giuliani's strong leadership in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Picture a similar disaster, natural or man-made, occurring in Gainesville. Who would be the go-to person for gathering information and dispensing it to the right agencies and departments? Who would work the phones to seek help from the governor or federal officials? Who would reassure an anxious public and inform residents how to respond?
In a crisis, we might have five different council members trying to run the show, which could result in conflicting information, confusion and discord. Legislatures and councils are deliberative bodies designed to debate issues in a parliamentary process, not make snap judgments when action is required. That's why the U.S. government has a president and states have governors. Each branch of government has its role to play.
Yet here in Gainesville, there is but one branch of government and no true executive. The city manager is chosen to handle the city's day-to-day functions but no one votes for him; he is answerable only the council that hired him. He has a constituency of five. That's not a leader city residents could rally behind.
Same is true with an elected school board chairman. Board member Kelvin Simmons expressed fear that it would be "getting too much politics mixed in with education." Yet there already are politics involved, and always will be. An elected chairman would answer directly to voters, not just fellow board members. That extra level of accountability would put more power into the hands of the people.
There are fair arguments here on both sides, and we don't mean to dismiss any of them in what would be a complicated shift. The points made here are just meant to start the discussion. City leaders ought to embrace this chance to hear from residents what kind of government they would like, then work to deliver it to them.
It isn't often that people get to elect not only the individuals who serve in government but what kind of government they prefer. Anyone who believes voters should not have that say may be acting on behalf of their own interests instead of the city's.