Mayor Teresa Tomlinson bristled Monday when a member of the city’s Charter Review Commission referred to her office as “ceremonial.”
After a commission subcommittee chairman used the word while reporting on the panel’s proposal to expand the office’s power, Tomlinson said, “I would never have run if it were a ceremonial office.”
She also said she was not sure the committee’s idea to empower the mayor to fire senior city management is wise.
Currently, the mayor has to bring the issue to Columbus Council and get six votes to dismiss senior management. Under the subcommittee’s proposal, which has not yet been officially presented to the commission, the mayor could fire a division director without council’s approval, but council could override the dismissal.
Those who have held Tomlinson’s job before her agree with her about the panel’s “ceremonial” assessment. But they’re mixed on whether the office’s powers should be expanded.
“The job is what you make it,” said Frank Martin, mayor from 1991-94. “Some mayors in the past have been ceremonial mayors, content with cutting ribbons and just doing civic functions. And then we’ve had mayors who saw the job as a challenge to provide some real leadership to help guide the city in a certain direction. I think we’ve had some of both over the years.”
Martin said he thinks further empowering the office is a good idea.
“You have to have a near catastrophe or fiasco before you can replace a department head,” Martin said. “Some of these things are foreseeable. But you have 10 councilors who have different interests and different constituencies. The mayor’s looking at the overall picture, but councilors are concerned with different constituencies and not the big picture.
“So I’m very much in favor of it and I hope it gets proposed as a change in the charter,” he added.
Martin’s successor, Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters, agreed that the mayor’s role depends much on his or her desire and ability to lead. But he disagreed on giving the office more power.
“The mayor has as much power as the mayor wants to exercise,” Peters said.
But he does not think that power should include the ability to fire senior management.
“Some think that a new mayor coming in ought to be able to bring in new people he or she is comfortable working with,” Peters said. “But to me, a career public employee is public property, paid by the public, belongs to the public. There’s a lot of experience there. So when a new mayor comes in -- not a career employee -- you wouldn’t want them coming in and, as I call it, destroying public property. If you clean house to bring in a lot of new individuals, you lose a lot of experience.”
Bob Poydasheff, who served after Peters, from 2003-2006, said the office is “absolutely not” ceremonial.
“Sure there are ceremonial aspects of the job, but it’s a working office and involves a lot of executive leadership.”
He also agreed on expanding the office’s power, but went one step further.
“I think that the mayor should have the authority to fire the senior management, subject to being overridden by the council,” Poydasheff said. “I also think the mayor should have veto power. There may be things the council does that the mayor thinks should be vetoed. I think the mayor should have that power.”
Jim Wetherington, who served after Poydasheff and prior to Tomlinson from 2007-2010, agreed that the there’s more than ceremony to the job.
“Obviously, ceremony is part of the mayor’s office, but it’s not the primary purpose of the office,” Wetherington said, but declined to comment on expanding the office’s power.
Bob Hydrick is a member of the charter subcommittee studying the executive branch. He was also a member of the original charter commission that created the document and has served as mayor. He spoke to what the original commission intended for the office.
“The idea was that the mayor is the chief executive officer of the city and the city manager is the chief operating officer of the city,” Hydrick said. “And as such, the city manager operates under the direction and control of the chief executive officer of the city -- the mayor.
“That’s the way the charter commission envisioned the original makeup of the city government,” he added.