American State and Local Politics: Directions for the 21st Century

By Ronald E. Weber; Paul Brace | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
The Resurgent City Councils

Susan MacManus

Face it, being a public official -- a policy maker, a decision- maker -- is a difficult job. You're dealing frequently with problems that don't have clear answers and yet you have a large body of constituents waiting for answers -- expecting you to come up with new services to meet changing needs without increasing costs. That's a tough assignment. In many cases, rewards aren't easy to measure. You don't earn a lot of money, you probably don't get consistent and reliable feedback, you can't see immediate or measurable results, and you can be abruptly bounced out of office by a group of nameless voters. . . . And it can all run away with you before you know what happens.

-- Handbook for Newly Elected City Officials

CITY COUNCILS -- bodies described as homogeneous, consensual, part-time, and deferential to mayors and city managers -- have changed considerably over the past three decades. They have become more diverse, conflictual, and even more defiant of chief executives, reflecting trends in the polity at large. There have been significant changes in the structure of city councils, the complexity of the job, the personal attributes of people who successfully run for the office (age, gender, race), campaign strategies and tactics used by those seeking council posts, the types of problems to be dealt with once elected, and the ways councilors communicate with the electorate.

At the same time, the old saying that "the more things change, the more they remain the same" has some validity. Municipalities still bear the major responsibility for financing and delivering the bulk of the services that have the most direct impact on the average American's day-to-day quality of life, such as police and fire protection, water, sewage disposal, garbage pick-up, streets, parks. The motives of those who run for city council have changed little over the years. And "politics" has consistently been a driving force behind the actions of individual council members, although the specific dynamics have shifted in many communities.

Political shifts on councils have generally paralleled changes in a community's demographic and socioeconomic makeup and its political ge-

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