Mayors and councils should understand their roles and perform them with civility

Mayors and councils should understand their roles and perform them with civility


In small towns that can’t afford to pay the mayor to work full time or pay a city manager, there can be some ambiguity about who is in charge of the city day to day. Is it the mayor? Or the city council?

If it’s the mayor, what actions can he or she take without approval and what actions does the mayor need to run by the city council?

Ambiguity about roles and authority was at the core of unfortunate exchange at the last Moroni City Council meeting. The low point in what nearly deteriorated into a shouting match came when Mayor Paul Bailey told Councilman Justin Morley he needed counseling, and Morley called Bailey an ass.

The conflict had been brewing for months, but came to a head when Bailey persuaded two businesses to contribute about $500 apiece for a new identification sign in the city cemetery. The mayor says the old sign was broken. In our view, the new sign is much more attractive than the old one.

The problem was that Bailey put in the new sign without telling Morley, the person Bailey had appointed a few months earlier as the council liaison with parks, the cemetery and other public facilities.

But back to the core question of who’s in charge. Under the mayor-council form of government outlined in Utah law, the mayor is the CEO of the city. That applies to Gunnison, Moroni, Mt. Pleasant and Fairview. It fact, it applies to all of our towns except Ephraim and Manti, both of which have a full city administrator or manager.

What does being CEO mean? It means all department heads report to the mayor. The mayor hires and fires. Whether it’s police, fire, parks or roads, the mayor is the primary person formulating and approving work plans, and overseeing implementation of those plans.

What about new initiatives, such as rebuilding a water system or putting in a new park? Typically, those, too, start with the mayor. If it’s a major project, the mayor frequently brings in engineers or planners from the city’s consulting engineering firm.

What if a council member wants to push a project or initiative? The sensible approach is for the council member to talk about the idea with the mayor, who may put it on the council agenda for further discussion and input. In most cases, the mayor will need to drive the project because he or she will be the person coordinating implementation.

So what does the council do? The council is the legislative arm of city government. It approves or rejects the budget, taxes, utility rates, zoning changes, subdivisions, conditional use permits, policies, resolutions and ordinances. The mayor must see that all of those directives are faithfully executed.

In nearly all our towns, the mayor appoints council members as liaisons with various arms of city government. One council member might be the liaison with the city planning commission, another with the library board, another with the fire department, etc.

Apparently state statute is a little unclear on whether the mayor, at will, can rescind the appointments, or shuffle them to different council members, at will. We believe he should have that power.

If state law is unclear on the power to appoint or other powers, a city should do as Ephraim and Mt Pleasant, and possibly other Sanpete County municipalities have done: The city council should pass an ordinance, applicable to that city only, further defining the government structure and powers of officials.

The primary role of a council liaison is overseeing what the department is doing to make sure leaders are following policies and not wasting money. A secondary role is communication. The liaison reports back to the mayor and council on what is going on in the department and what problems have arisen that might require budgetary, regulatory or administrative action.

Is the council liaison with the fire department in charge of the department? No. The mayor is in charge of all departments. Does the fire chief report to the council member who serves as liaison with the fire department? No. The fire chief reports to the mayor.

There’s another aspect of municipal governance that isn’t written into statutes or org charts but should be common sense. The mayor and city council need to work together.

The mayor needs to inform the council about what he or she is up to. If projects the mayor proposes are worthy, we would expect the council to support them wholeheartedly, especially if they can be financed by donations. If there’s a lot of opposition to a given project, possibly the mayor should not move ahead with it, even if he or she has the power to do so.

In the final analysis, communication, civility and compromise are the lubricants of a progressive municipality.