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No One Man Should Have All That Power

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In 1986 the City of Beacon, New York looked to Glen Cove as a model for their transition away from a part-time “commission” form of government. The Evening News reported that in 1980 Glen Cove revised its charter to impose a “strong mayor” style.

To follow the city council is to know that is what it has. All power in this city flows, not through our legislative body, but the executive. At council meetings, the mayor tells residents when to speak, when he’s had enough. When to stand up, when to sit down. He alone dictates when the discussion is over.

Largely the result of City government policy.

Largely the result of City government policy.

The loyal opposition (which tends to be former supporters) usually offers the best debate when “the meeting is over.” The City Council has even less of a voice, and candidates are sometimes chosen by party leaders to make rubber-stampers out of would-be dissenters. What is a councilman for but to vote “aye on all”? To put it into perspective, Ralph Suozzi’s 2013 campaign estimated that the challenger for his job, now-Mayor Spinello voted with the Mayor 97.1 percent over his term on the council.

That’s because our city charter authorizes the chief executive of our city government not only to participate in legislative meetings but also to vote on his proposed resolutions. And only the mayor can propose resolutions. The political class has defended this pattern over recent years with mantra such as “the real debate happens at pre-council.” The truth is that real debate is not fostered by our current political system, and it leaves too much power in the hands of one person, and by extension, his or her political cronies.

This is what James Madison warned about when he wrote The Federalist Papers, in which he argued for the ratification of the Constitution. We all know his maxim “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But he goes much further.

Developers donate to mayors, who grant them privileges such as tax breaks and favorable zoning.

Developers coddle mayors, who write laws for their projects.

“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands,” even those we elect, “may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny” Madison writes in Federalist No. 47. To explain, Madison quotes Montesquieu: “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body, there can be no liberty, because apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws to execute them in a tyrannical manner.” Madison’s solution is to separate the three branches and set up a system of checks and balances.

And it’s not just government. Private and public companies are adopting reforms based on similar principles. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report on corporate governance highlights that the trend is towards splitting the role of the CEO and board leadership. Aside from the split, shareholders prefer an independent board chair, according to the report, because they “argue splitting the roles curbs conflicts of interest, promotes more robust oversight, and enhances CEO accountability.” The PwC report cited a study they conducted which found that 68 percent of controlled companies and 42 percent of noncontrolled companies split at the time of IPO. The numbers even rise significantly after the IPO, which suggests that markets demand this reform. To be sure, PwC cited another survey, which found among companies that still combined the CEO and board chair roles, 83 percent had an independent lead director.

It’s not just among governments and corporations–even our school board meetings aren’t presided over by the superintendent. The school board president runs them. School districts and corporations know that the executive cannot be considered independent, which in turn interferes with the ability to exercise judgment and run meetings in a smooth and deliberate manner.

James Madison would agree, reminds us to “divide and arrange the offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other.” Only this can ensure  that “the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”

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About the author

Founder, Executive Editor

Before founding the Beacon, Mike worked at AOL Patch, Anton News, and most recently at Reason Magazine.

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