If you want to create a strong mayor system in Lewiston, you need to persuade voters to join your cause.
But the people behind the SMART (Strong, Mayor, Accountable to voters, Responsive to the people, Taxpayers have a voice) campaign seem to be getting off on the wrong foot.
Rather than alienating voters, you’d think SMART would be focused on the idea that an elected mayor is accountable to the voters. Don’t like the police chief? Call the mayor and warn him that either he or the chief is going to be sent down the road.
Odds are, that mayor will get the message.
By contrast, getting rid of an appointed city manager is no easy task. Standing between him and the voters are at least four city councilors. Even then, you have to deal with the city manager’s contract, which can inflict a substantial financial penalty.
No wonder in populist Idaho, most cities aside from Lewiston, Twin Falls and McCall rely on the strong mayor system; Pocatello opted to drop its city manager about 30 years ago.
If it were living up to its name, SMART also would anticipate the counter arguments heading its way. Among them:
l A lot of people think government should run like a business. That’s the council-manager system in a nutshell. Think of the council as a corporate board of directors and the manager as the chief executive officer.
l A lot of people have found the council-manager system to be a potent remedy to cronyism and corruption. If anything, it’s become more popular, with more than 55 percent of cities larger than 10,000 people adopting it, particularly along the Pacific Coast and in the Southeast, according to the International City/County Management Association.
l A lot of people want local government to be as financially tightfisted as they are. Mayors excel at winning elections. Day-to-day operations at city hall get delegated to high-priced administrative talent — in other words, someone trained and experienced in managing a city. If you wind up with both a full-time mayor and a manager, don’t expect to save any money.
But SMART is not trying to appeal to the broadest swath of voters. It’s talking to the base of the Republican Party.
For instance, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin may be the darling of the ideological wedge of the Idaho GOP. But why would you have her deliver the keynote address at the April 30 SMART campaign kickoff event?
Likewise, the field of declared mayoral candidates — assuming voters adopt the strong mayor model in November — includes GOP Legislative District 6 Chairwoman Heather Rogers and registered Republican Wilson Boots.
Among SMART’s organizers is former Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport Authority Board member Joe Gish, a registered Republican who does not reside within the city limits.
Maybe this would work better within the Republican strongholds of Nez Perce County or Legislative District 6.
But Lewiston, like many cities, operates under a different political dynamic.
Because it conducts nonpartisan elections, a candidate’s party affiliation is not on the ballot. Few city election voters recognize a Republican approach to filling potholes or a Democratic method of delivering water. So they look past party labels.
The electorate itself is more diverse. The city certainly is politically competitive and it may even skew left of center. In the 2019 city election, voters elevated three Democrats to the city council — former 2nd District Court Judge John Bradbury, who twice sought the Legislature as a Democrat, Kevin Kelly, who at the time served as vice chairman of the Nez Perce County Democratic Central Committee and now serves as a precinct captain, and Cari Miller, who affiliates as a Democrat.
To top it off, public employee unions have a greater influence over city elections because they are effective at marshalling resources, they provide services that are popular with the public and they get their voters to the polls in an otherwise low turnout election.
So here’s the question for SMART: Why are you flirting with an us-vs.-them argument — when the evidence suggests there are more of them? — M.T.