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More like Toronto than Birmingham

Updated: December 20, 2013 - 2:53 pm

Posted: December 20, 2013

It's bad enough needing to worry about customers, economic cycles and recessions - businesses must also fret about politicians. I'm not talking about silly laws passed or seemingly outrageous taxes collected. No, I'm talking about something far worse: the few "bad" apples in politics that make the business owner and customer think twice about staying at or moving into a particular location. I'm talking about those antics that hurt industrial reputation and force some to look "elsewhere." Most politicians are honest, but the behavior of a few can do some real damage to a region's advantage for enterprise.

Some antics are temporary and quickly pass from the horizon. When I was considering moving from California to Alabama, the lieutenant governor decided to urinate behind the podium in the state senate chamber just to keep a filibuster going. We questioned whether this was the kind of culture best to raise children. The story, however, seemed singular and faded quickly.

But some antics have long-term consequences, and this is especially true with municipal governments. In 2010 Birmingham, Ala., Mayor Larry Langford was convicted of more than 100 counts of money laundering, bribery and conspiracy. As a consequence of the behavior of him and his cronies, one segment of local government - the Water Board - declared bankruptcy, credit ratings tanked, and taxes skyrocketed. At his sentencing, my thoughts raced back to when mayor-elect Langford paid an unexpected visit to my master of public administration classroom and spoke of such lofty goals as bidding on the 2016 Summer Olympics, bringing the middle class back into town and being more business-friendly - all with the aim of advancing the economics inside the city limits. After sentencing, I thought about how Birmingham's reputation was severely damaged and how this hurt the city's future growth.

We've also been watching the public relations mess caused by Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford. Fighting with city council members over policy is one thing. But crack cocaine? Hanging with favorite sex workers and drug gang members? Offering a bribe and lying to the police? Based upon media reports, it would appear that Toronto will suffer like Birmingham from the consequences of having a bad apple.

But what the media doesn't seem to grasp is that the two stories take place within completely different government structures. You need to understand this because local governments in Hampton Roads are more like Toronto than Birmingham. Let me explain.

Birmingham, like about 60 percent of cities in North America, uses the council-mayor form of government. In this structure, the mayor and city council members enjoy both power to create policy and the authority to implement it. They control how much is spent and where it will be spent. This power and authority generates a lot of politics and, hence, a lot of potential embarrassment for business.

Toronto, in contrast, uses the council-manager form of government. City council still has the power to pass ordinances, and the mayor plays a role in that process while acting as the titular representative of the city. But the actual implementation of policy - the authority to hire, fire and fund departments and projects - generally rests more with the CEO of the city - the city manager. City managers typically earn master of public administration degrees and are skilled in efficiency, effectiveness and citizen-service. They are politically neutral and stay above the fray. If they err, they can be more easily fired than a mayor with power and authority.

What the media is not reporting is that Toronto's city manager, Joseph P. Pennachetti, is at the helm steering the ship. Toronto corporations know this and, hence, their "fret" over the recent antics of Mayor Ford is not at the level the media would suggest. Because of the council-manager structure, Toronto remains economically confident and competitive. More commercial buildings are under construction in Toronto than in New York City, Mexico City and Vancouver combined. Despite the mayor's antics, Toronto still maintains its position of having a great world-wide reputation - ranked only behind Sydney, Australia.

The council-manager form of government was pioneered in Staunton in 1908, and "good government" took root in the business-nurtured soil of our state. Currently large Virginia municipalities, with the exception of Richmond, have city managers at the helm. All hire well-educated MPA graduates as assistants, and these young people gain experience in "good government" before they become city managers.

So fret a little less about possible antics of local politicians. Your local government structure advances the reputation of the Hampton Roads region and nurtures its economy in many positive ways.

James D. Slack, Ph.D., is a professor and director of the Master of Public Administration Program in the Robertson School of Government at Regent University. He can be reached at jslack@regent.edu.

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