Annapolis council strips some power from mayor

Running the government of Maryland's capital city has long been a contact sport, with the mayor and city council jostling for power. This week in Annapolis, the legislative branch scored.

The Annapolis City Council, after decades of pushing to bring professional management to the local government, granted itself more control over daily city operations under a plan that siphons some power from Democratic Mayor Joshua J. Cohen and strips him of one of his closest aides.

In a 7-2 vote Monday evening, the council created a new position of city manager and gave itself the ability to fire that person without the consent of the mayor. The move came after council members expressed frustration at being kept out of the loop on key decisions less than six months into Cohen's first term.

In a compromise that helped the mayor avoid a more severe change that would have made his job largely ceremonial, Cohen agreed to support the alteration to the city charter and also said he would let the contract of his top assistant, city administrator Doug Smith, expire in June. Smith has been the point person for staff layoffs, and has rankled some council members.

"People have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo," said Democratic Alderman Ross H. Arnett, who pushed unsuccessfully for the more drastic change. "But we need a professional city manager that reports to the council. No mayor wants to give up all that power. That's apparently the opiate of being mayor of Annapolis."

The council has long tried to tweak the form of government in Annapolis, a generally affluent waterfront city of 36,000 people that operates with a "strong mayor" form of government similar to a large city like Baltimore, with a mayor as the chief executive.

But most cities of Annapolis' size — it employs about 700 people and has an annual operating budget of about $82 million — have professional managers, not politicians, running the government, said Mayraj Fahim, a local government consultant based in Connecticut.

The council-manager form of government has gained traction in small and medium-size municipalities across the United States, Fahim said. Governments operated chiefly by a city manager and council grew out of a range of reforms in the late 1800s aimed at rooting out political corruption.

"Whoever gets elected in a small town, that can be sort of a crap shoot," said Fahim. "It really has become much more important now. You need somebody who is more professionally trained to manage things."

The council-manager or some variation is now the dominant form of government in 63 percent of cities with populations greater than 25,000, according to the International City/County Management Association.

Michele Frisby, a spokeswoman for the association, said having a city manager "takes the politics out of the day-to-day service delivery."

"Most mayors aren't qualified to run a city," Frisby said. "Plus, they're too busy entertaining guests from other countries."

Cohen said he agreed to the change because the political brawl over Smith, and the renewal of a push for a city manager-form of government was a distraction from what he hoped to accomplish.

"The council has gotten off track and focused on him," said Cohen. "And we need to focus on the budget. We needed to bring closure to this issue."

Cohen said he was pleased with the final bill, which he said "ensures that Annapolis will have a strong executive in a mayor and also strengthens the council's oversight."

While council members said they have faith in Cohen's abilities, they quarreled with his pick of Smith, who despite having worked in private-sector management for decades, lacked governmental experience.

Annapolis' current circumstances — a new mayor, coupled with a record $11.3 million budget deficit and a round of City Hall layoffs — galvanized the council. Many council members complained they weren't consulted before last month's announcement of the layoffs of 33 employees.

Alderman Frederick M. Paone, the council's lone Republican, voted for the measure, but said he would have preferred a stronger city manager bill. Still, he was pleased that some changes were made.

"This will increase the power of the citizens," said Paone.

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