Monday, September 21, 2015

A Primer of Provo’s Municipal Government




Traveling on the Frontrunner north or south takes one through multiple municipalities, allowing comparative views from the rails—sometimes cramped and weed-covered, other times expansive and manicured.  Only a municipal councilor likely would also notice that the succession of communities represents a succession of different forms of municipal government as well.  The brief ride between Provo and Orem is illustrative.  Provo’s government exemplifies the Council-Mayor form of government and Orem’s the Council-Manager form, two of the five forms defined by the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

What is often perceived as a seamless visual transition between Orem and Provo belies their differences in governmental structure and in the consequences for administrative dynamics and policy making within each city.  My observations here are of Provo following nearly four years as a member of its Municipal Council. 

Provo’s municipal government is bipartite and consists of a part-time, seven-member Municipal Council and a full-time mayor, who heads a full-time administration.  Council members serve for four years and have staggered terms.  The mayor’s term is four years.  The elections are nonpartisan.  The offices of the Council and the mayor occupy different areas of the City Center on the top floor, approximately 100 feet from each other.

The Council is led by a chair, who fills a one-year appointment and is elected to the position by a majority of her or his peers.  Its staff of six full-time City (spelling with an uppercase C denotes the legal entity) employees assist the Council in researching, analyzing, scheduling, agendizing, and interacting with the public, all while maintaining an emphasis on the Council’s twin constitutional mandates: the annual City budget and the use of property within the city (spelling with a lowercase c denotes the residents and the geographical area in which they live).

Meanwhile, the mayor can turn to more than 500 full-time employees and several hundred part-time employees for assistance with his mandated duties, which are executive and operational and of a scale much beyond the Council’s.  The mayor’s primary go-to assistants are officed with him, beginning with the City’s Chief Administrative Officer.  At the ready are a dozen Department Directors, each a seasoned and canny professional and each with her or his own staff on whom the moment-moment running of a major, much-watched municipality rests.

This imbalance of resources between the governmental branches may seem to work a disadvantage on the Municipal Council.  The Council doesn’t even come close to matching the intellectual, financial, and social-capital resources of the administration.  For this reason, the Council’s agendas and its priorities typically originate with the administration, which means that the Council exists largely to advise and consent.  This is not to say that it is beholden to the administration, dependent on it, or overshadowed by it.  Rather, the Council exists not as a primary source of initiatives so much as a well-informed judge of such, ideally bringing abundant sense and sensibility to what should invariably be an interactive endeavor.

The Council is not without means to leverage its comparatively limited resources.  First, because it is in the legislative driver’s seat, it can turn to the administration at any point with requests for further detail, including comparative forecasts and the identification of unintended consequences.  Moreover, the Council can appoint its own nonpartisan advisory bodies independent of the administration, with the mandate to study administrative practices, policies, and proposals carefully and at a desired level of detail before forwarding recommendations directly to the Council.  The Council can also lend its ear to citizen activists as reasonably informed, passionate advocates of agendas that often depart from those of the administration— but at the cost of partisanship.  Through its outreach efforts in the social and other media, the Council can poll or survey the citizenry at large or in limited, targeted fashion.  The Council’s recent introduction of the Provo People’s Lobby represents a further effort to call on the wisdom and good will of citizens at large as an adjunct to the Council’s formal resources.

Given the design of Provo’s municipal government and the differential resources available to its two entities, an overall rule of the thumb might be: Though independent by constitutional mandate, it is nevertheless advisable for the Municipal Council and the City administration to establish and maintain a cordial, if occasionally strained, working relationship and not an adversarial one.  The best interests, purposes, and future of Provo are in the balance.

Note: This piece is the first of four that will appear prior to the conclusion of my tenure as a member of the Provo City Municipal Council.  The others will focus on policy governance, best praxis, and vexing challenges.


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