Is mayoral system working?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 21, 2013

Ironton City Council may soon ask voters whether or not the city should have mayoral term limits, but it makes me wonder if they are asking the wrong question in the first place.

One of the things that I enjoy most about my job is the often lively debates with citizens about important issues that affect the community. Perhaps more than any topic in recent history, the proposed plan to put a charter amendment on the November ballot to eliminate mayoral term limits has sparked plenty of private discussion.

The debate has raised the bigger question: Would the city be better off with a mayor or a city manager?

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There are no easy answers but it is a concept certainly worth considering. This shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of Mayor Rich Blankenship but instead simply looking for the best system for Ironton’s future.

First, the newspaper has been clear that the proposed process of eliminating term limits is flawed in that council shouldn’t have a role in it at all. If citizens want this change then let them lead the way by collecting signatures on petitions to put the charter change on the ballot.

But citizens should also ask themselves: Which system works better?

Of course it ultimately comes down to the individual but there are pros and cons to each form of government.

The city manager form worked fairly well for many years before problems arose and the mayoral form was put in place in 1980.

The pros for the current mayoral system is more accountability to the citizens. It prevents career politicians from staying in office too long and the ability to recall an individual if necessary through the democratic process. The downside is that it often comes down to limited choices in a popularity contest.

The pros for city manager form are that you can hire the most qualified individual instead of simply going with the most popular. It also could help minimize political games and allow someone to be in office for long-term vision. The cons include the fact that voters don’t directly choose this person and council changes could create a lack of stability.

One of my friends, a longtime Irontonian who is well-versed in how the local government operates, lobbies hard for the city manager system and makes many legitimate points.

“The primary issue with the mayoral form of government is that this city lacks qualified and willing people to run,” he wrote to me in a recent email as we debated the issue back and forth. “… With a city manager, you have no idea who might be willing to apply. A good city manager could stay here for decades. Applicants could be drawn from all over the country.”

He went on to draw apt parallels to operating a successful business.

“If you owned a small business in Ironton and needed a manager, would you want the best available person you could find? Would you want to limit yourself to city residents? Would you want an experienced manager or a seasoned politician at the helm?”

It is hard to argue with his assertion that the city manager-ran Ashland, Ky., has prospered over the past two or three decades — despite losing Ashland Inc. and massive cutbacks at AK Steel among others — while Ironton, Portsmouth and Huntington, W.Va., have declined and are only now showing varying degrees of resurgence.

Is the difference solely tied to the city manager versus mayoral form of government? Probably not but it is an issue that should be investigated.

Maybe the “mayor vs. manager” question is one that Irontonians need to answer now and then make the respective efforts to place the best charter change options on the November ballot.

Neither solution is perfect and both ultimately come down to the individual chosen to lead the city, but it may be time to consider all the options instead of simply modifying the current one.


Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCaldwell_IT.