The mayor as leader

Is it time to reconsider the position?

Is being mayor of Chico a leadership role? If not, should it be?

Those were a couple of questions Chico Mayor Ann Schwab and I tried to answer over lunch last week at La Cocina Economica, the little eatery at Ninth and Wall streets that, as its name suggests, offers tasty food at “economical” prices.

Ours was an informal, get-acquainted meet-up, since she and I had never before had much in the way of a real conversation. As a reporter, I’d called her for comment on stories I was writing and chatted with her briefly at council meetings, but that was about it.

We talked about a number of things—Walmart, council dynamics, that sort of stuff. I didn’t take notes, so what follows is from memory.

I was the one who brought up the leadership issue. It’s one I’ve been trying to address, as a CN&R editor, for several years. The way I see it, Chico lacks the kind of leadership that comes from someone who’s paid to provide it. It has administrative leadership, in the form of a city manager, but no single person elected at large who can provide political leadership. Instead, it’s run by committee—the City Council—which lacks real leadership.

Yes, there are individual leaders among the council members—Scott Gruendl, for example, who most recently laid the framework for the Walmart vote. But nobody is setting a leadership agenda. A case in point: Andy Holcombe, who when he became mayor gave up his leadership role on the issue of homelessness, saying that as mayor he needed to be the council’s mediator instead.

What if, I asked Schwab, the mayor were elected at large for a four-year term and paid a salary to work full time—not to replace the city manager, but to serve as a liaison between the council and the community on policy matters? As the only council member elected by a majority vote, he or she would have enhanced personal authority.

Schwab had concerns, naturally, but she also could see the value.

For one thing, it’s hard to serve as mayor—even in today’s limited role—and hold down a job. Schwab has cut back her hours at CAVE to 30, but she still struggles to find time to do all she is asked to do as mayor.

And she agreed that changing mayors every two years, as is now done, weakens the position.

There was much more to our discussion, of course, more than I can relate here. What I’m hoping is that the mayor, and the other members of the council, will begin thinking—and talking with community members—about ways to improve leadership and representation in Chico. The current system worked for as long as Chico was a small town, but it’s a mid-sized city now, too large and too diverse to be run effectively by committee.

It needs real leadership, and the only way to get that is by creating positions of leadership—beginning with the mayor.