Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on Jan. January 5, 2010.
How do you show "strong leadership" in a "weak mayor" system?
That's the riddle Matt Hayek will need to solve for himself if he is going to succeed in his new role as mayor of Iowa City.
Hayek, of course, can turn for advice to past mayors and city councilors -- people such as John Balmer and Ernie Lehman as well as Writers' Group members Karen Kubby, Jim Throgmorton and Bob Elliott. But their advice merely highlights the many tightropes on which every Iowa City mayor needs to learn to balance himself.
Everyone seems to say the Iowa City mayor needs to be "a good listener" who is respectful when the public and his fellow councilors voice their opposing opinions. But the mayor also needs to ensure that the meetings are run smoothly and that the council actually gets through its agenda in an efficient and productive manner.
"That's the trick for the person who is in the middle chair conducting those meetings and leading the discussion," Balmer said. "It's very critical for that person to be able to assemble the team, to be the captain and to get the teammates to follow."
Everyone points out that the mayor is the "voice" of the council and the "face" of the city. But they also say the mayor needs to remember that he also is "just one of seven," "the first among equals" and "no more or less powerful than anyone else." The mayor has to be approachable enough to work with his fellow councilors and the public, but he can't be overly concerned with being "well-liked" by everyone.
"You always have to listen to what the public has to say," Lehman said. "They may be dead wrong, but you have to let them have their say. ... And you can't retaliate."
Everyone agrees that the mayor has to be able to trust the facts, figures and "on the ground" reports provided by city staff -- otherwise the council starts to make the mistake of micromanaging the staff. But the mayor also has to know when staff members are taking too narrow of a view on a topic or when they are so excited about the benefits of a program that they forget about the program's costs.
"It's very difficult to get four councilors to say 'no' to something that sounds wonderful but that the city can't afford," Kubby said.
Everyone agrees that being a good mayor requires a lot of time and attention -- Balmer goes as far as to say that the mayor is "basically on-call 24-7." Yet the token salary for the position means the mayor winds up working for about minimum wage. That means that Hayek, as a partner in a local law firm and as the father of two small children, also needs to balance his public obligations against the demands of his personal and professional lives.
"There are positions around that country where people run for public office because they can't get a job anywhere else," Lehman said. "Luckily nobody runs for council in Iowa City for the money. ... They do it out of a sense of commitment to the community."
Hayek seems smart enough to recognize that he has signed up for an almost impossible job. He's assuming his new office at a time when the city is facing some very painful budget discussions that will leave very few people happy. He also now has to help find a city manager who is a "good fit" with Iowa City's unique brand of local politics.
We think the council made the right choice by voting unanimously for Hayek. And we count ourselves among the many local residents who are optimistic that the new mayor will find a practical, personal solution to the riddle of Iowa City government.
But given the difficult balancing act every Iowa City mayor is asked to perform, we also think it's time to have Iowa City voters start electing their mayor directly rather than have the councilors choose from among themselves.