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City Council

In Charlotte, Democracy Struggles Against Bureaucracy

The mayor pleaded powerlessness.

With the delta variant of COVID-19 tearing through our community, several reporters asked at a recent press conference if Mayor Vi Lyles intended to impose a new municipal mask mandate in Charlotte.

“I’ve been really, really consistent that we should follow the science,” she responded without answering the question.

The science, according to the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, is clear: In areas with substantial or high rates of transmission, which includes Charlotte, even fully vaccinated people ought to wear masks.

Another reporter asked Lyles: Will you impose a new mask mandate?

“My hope is that people understand this is a difficult time and that we will take any action we can personally take and be personally accountable to each other and responsible to each other, and we should be wearing our masks. That’s what I believe,” she said.

The mayor then gave a gratuitous nod to those who reject the advice of doctors, scientists, and public health experts, observing, “There are also people who don’t believe that and they may not support it.”

Still no answer to the question.

A third journalist pressed Lyles, and, finally, she answered.

“I do not have the power to mandate a mask requirement for the City of Charlotte,” she asserted.

If true, this would largely moot the question, for Lyles’s opinion on a mask mandate would be mostly irrelevant if she doesn’t have the authority to impose one. (Not totally irrelevant, mind you. As mayor, Lyles could certainly use the bully pulpit to push for masks while avoiding the suggestion of equivalence between those who earned their public health credentials in laboratories and universities and those who earned them in hysterical Facebook discussion groups.)

But this isn’t true: Lyles does have the power to impose a mask mandate, and other mayors across North Carolina have been issuing such mandates as the delta variant rips through their towns and cities.

Within hours of the news conference, Lyles seemed to admit her error in a written statement — while also forsaking the power she tacitly acknowledged she possesses.

“Throughout this entire COVID-19 pandemic, we have listened to the experts and taken recommendations and guidance from the Public Health Department and Policy Group. It is important that the entire Charlotte-Mecklenburg region work together to battle COVID-19,” the statement read. “At this time, we have not received a recommendation to reinstitute the mask mandate. If we do get that recommendation, I along with the Mayors and other elected officials will discuss and consider that recommendation, which is consistent with the approach that we’ve taken throughout the pandemic.”

The Policy Group to which Lyles referred, as WBTV’s David Hodges first reported in October 2020, essentially calls the shots regarding our local response to COVID-19 and is comprised of the managers from Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, and the six other municipalities in the county — Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville, Mint Hill, Matthews, and Pineville. (The managers essentially function as the CEOs of local government, hired by their respective boards and councils to tend to the day-to-day work of governance.)

Joe Bruno of WSOC published a a more complete list of Policy Group members last week. It turns out the group includes, in addition to the managers, representatives from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, Charlotte Fire Department, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, Atrium Health, Novant Health, the local courts, and the county health department.

Whatever its exact composition, one essential characteristic defines the group: It’s comprised of professional staff, not elected officials.

The group, which meets in private and publishes neither agendas nor meeting materials nor minutes, stopped convening earlier this summer when the virus appeared to be under control, but it reassembled when COVID positivity rates started climbing, most recently meeting on Monday. (A brief aside: Reporters asked County Manager Dena Diorio this week why the Policy Group ignored a request from local media outlets to open the group’s meetings to the public pursuant to the state’s Open Meetings Law. While Diorio’s answer was, essentially, “We don’t think the law applies,” her attitude was, “What are you going to do about it?” If, as the Washington Post masthead teaches, democracy dies in darkness, then bureaucracy thrives in the shadows.)

With increased COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, and in light of new public health recommendations from the CDC, the Policy Group considered the question of masks at this week’s meeting, and, as Lyles wanted, the group agreed to follow the science — while also allowing Lyles to farm out her duties to others.

Diorio explained at a press conference following the Policy Group’s meeting on Monday that the group recommended county commissioners, acting as the board of health, adopt a public health rule mandating indoor masks throughout the county. If adopted by commissioners on August 18, the rule will go into effect ten days later. (To Lyles’s slight credit, Diorio also announced the mayor would issue a temporary municipal mask mandate that will be effective in Charlotte from August 18 until the county’s public health rule kicks in, assuming commissioners adopt the rule.)

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles explained she would not exercise her authority to impose a new municipal mask mandate unless a group of unelected bureaucrats meeting in secret unanimously recommended she do so.

The plan to pursue a county-adopted public health rule constitutes a work-around to bureaucratic resistance within the Policy Group.

Diorio previously explained that the group “works on consensus and we don’t move forward unless we have consensus from all the parties.”

Any single member of the group thus possesses the power to veto any policy recommendation — and at least two members recently stated they were prepared to block a mask requirement of the sort Lyles possesses the power to impose.

As WBTV’s Hodges reported last week, mayors in Huntersville and Cornelius told him they do not support a new municipal mask mandate.

The mayors presumably instructed their managers to take this position at this week’s meeting of the Policy Group, which prompted the need to pursue a countywide public health rule, instead of municipal mask mandates, to circumvent their opposition.

As for Lyles, she effectively handed over her mayoral authority to those managers opposed to a municipal mask mandate because, as she told Hodges last week, she would issue such a mandate in Charlotte only if the Policy Group endorsed it — and under the group’s rule of consensus, she knew the group would make no such recommendation. After the meeting, as expected, Lyles stood down, embracing inaction while hiding behind the responsible leadership of other local officials.

By her deference to bureaucrats conducting secret deliberations, Lyles allowed unelected administrators to stop her from wielding the powers assigned to her by law and granted to her by the people. Her willingness to stay her hand at the managers’ behest says a great deal about the relationship between democracy and bureaucracy in Charlotte.

*******

We think of our government’s function simply: The people vote for the mayor and city council, and then the mayor and city council govern. During the campaign season, candidates engage the people to ask for their votes, and amidst political controversy, the people lobby and hector their elected officials.

With these scene as our guides, we might conclude there are only two parties — elected officials and the people — involved in the work of governance.

But there’s a third party to consider, one that plays a key role: the well-credentialed, well-paid, full-time employees who man the levers of power within the permanent government bureaucracy.

We cannot understand our democracy without understanding our bureaucracy.

By democracy is meant the mayor and city council, those individuals elected by the people to lead the city and, by virtue of their positions, granted broad authority under state law to set policy for the city.

By bureaucracy is meant those individuals employed by the city to oversee its day-to-day operations. While more than 7,500 people work for the city, bureaucracy, for our purposes, does not include rank-and-file employees, but the relative handful of individuals — perhaps no more than a couple dozen people — who head Charlotte’s various municipal departments and are charged not merely with the execution, but the design and management, of city operations.

To help us understand the interaction between democracy and bureaucracy, we need to review the structures of municipal government in North Carolina, which themselves tend to encourage certain habits and behaviors among those operating within their frameworks.

State law offers cities and towns a choice between two forms of government: mayor-council and council-manager. (A city’s charter, which is initially granted by the General Assembly but may thereafter be amended by the city’s governing body or the city’s people in accordance with state law, determines the form under which a city operates.)

Under a mayor-council form of government, elected officials directly oversee the city’s departments and employees. This system of governance is one in which elected officials play an intimate, hands-on role in managing the city’s day-to-day operations, often, but not always, with the mayor assigned significant governing authority.

This form is most popular among older, larger cities and small towns: New York City (population 8.4 million) and Chicago (population 2.7 million) operate under this structure, but so does Harmony, North Carolina (population 541).

The council-manager form of government is most popular in mid-sized cities. Phoenix, Topeka, and San Antonio, for example, operate under a council-manager form of government.

So does Charlotte.

This means there exists a bifurcation of municipal duties between an elected council (and mayor) and a professional city manager. Council adopts policies and hires a manager to execute those policies. (The manager is one of three officials in North Carolina hired directly by Council under this form of government, the other two being a city attorney and a clerk. All other municipal employees ultimately answer to the city manager.)

This form of government, which arose around the turn of the twentieth century, aimed at progressive reform, an attempt to professionalize municipal operations and strike a blow against urban political machines like Tammany Hall in New York City or the Pendergasts in Kansas City. In place of people like Boss Tweed, who kept political power by distributing favors to those who would support the machine, the council-manager form of government seeks to install professional, well-credentialed bureaucrats who seek efficiency, stability, and economy of operations in the business of municipal affairs.

*******

And that’s what we’ve got in Charlotte.

City Manager Marcus Jones sits atop our municipal bureaucracy and has done so since he came to Charlotte in 2016. Over his twenty-five year career, he previously worked as budget director, assistant city manager, and city manager of Norfolk, Virginia. He also worked as deputy chief administrative officer in Richmond and deputy secretary of finance under two governors for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

City Manager Marcus Jones, who makes nearly $380,000 a year, sits atop Charlotte’s municipal bureaucracy.

Three assistant city managers complete the upper echelon of Charlotte’s bureaucracy.

Tracy Dodson serves as assistant city manager and economic development director. She joined the city in 2018 with twenty years of experience in the public and private sectors, working primarily for real estate interests.

Taiwo Jaiyeoba, who serves as assistant city manager and director of planning, design, and development, began working for the city in 2018. Duirng his thirty-year career, Jaiyeoba has worked as director of the Sacramento Regional Transit District and the director of planning and development in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Rounding out the top ranks of the city bureaucracy is Brent Cagle, who was elevated to the role of assistant manager in October 2020 following a seven-year stint as aviation director at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Before that, he worked for fourteen years in various roles for the City of Phoenix.

Below Jones, Dodson, Jaiyeoba, and Cagle, who each possess advanced degrees, are about twenty department heads, and below them a gaggle of deputies and assistants.

Each of these bureaucrats possesses two key resources: credentials and time.

Through their credentials, the bureaucrats offer the promise of expertise, playing the role of technocrats who, by way of their education and experience, possess the know-how necessary to craft solutions to the problems of governance. The bureaucrats know and, perhaps more important, are seen as knowing, how to govern a twenty-first century city.

This reputation for knowledge understandably encourages a deference to bureaucracy while suggesting the work of governance is technical, not normative, and therefore requires management, not leadership.

As for time, Charlotte’s bureaucrats are full-time employees — indeed, our top managers work long, long hours — and they are handsomely paid for their labor.

At last check, Jones’s salary was $379,587. Cagle made $266,792, while Dodson earned $252,214 and Jaiyeoba $235,499. (There are also two assistants to the city manager — Victoria Johnson and Shawn Heath — who make $213,200 and $250,000, respectively.)

The salaries of the roughly twenty department heads below the managers range from a low of $136,918 for City Clerk Stephanie Kelly to a high of $272,635 for John Lewis, director of the Charlotte Area Transit System.

The assistant and deputy directors of various departments invariably earn six figures. (The Charlotte Business Journal recently tallied 645 city employees who earn more than $100,000 a year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2019, the median individual income in Charlotte was roughly $35,000.)

In a market economy in which we each sell our labor as a commodity, bureaucrats’ salaries tell us something about their value to the city’s operation and, perhaps as important, how we understand their value.

In contrast to the bureaucracy, Charlotte’s democracy neither requires experts nor offers full-time, well-compensated work.

The mayor and eleven members of city council — four at-large and seven from districts — are elected to two-year terms and function as part-time citizen legislators.

They do not necessarily possess any education, training, skill, or experience in the technical work of governance. Their lack of expertise naturally encourages a relationship of dependence on the bureaucrats, on those who know, and are perceived as knowing, how to run a city. (As a matter of biography, Lyles counts as an interesting case: Prior to gaining elected office, she worked for the city as a high-level bureaucrat. A cynic might say her election represents bureaucracy’s infiltration of democracy.)

In addition to the knowledge gap between democrats — not Democrats — and bureaucrats, there exists a time gap because our elected officials hold down jobs outside of government (unless, as in some cases, they are retired).

The part-time character of elected officials’ municipal work is reflected in their compensation, which pales in comparison to that of the city’s top bureaucrats (or, for that matter, in comparison to the salaries of many rank-and-file municipal employees).

City Council voted this year to increase the mayor’s salary to $39,646. Her total compensation, including expense and auto allowances, now totals $59,868.

Council members also gave themselves a raise: They now receive a salary of $32,638, with total compensation amounting to $52,444.

Even with these increases, Charlotte’s elected officials earn substantially less than the city’s top bureaucrats, whose work they either directly or indirectly oversee. If compensation reflects our collective judgment about the worth of someone’s labor, we’re assigning minimal value to the mayor and council’s work.

Were our City Council comprised of independently wealthy people without the need to work, perhaps this imbalance wouldn’t matter (though, of course, this would introduce a host of new problems associated with plutocracy). But this isn’t the case.

While Jones and the other bureaucrats have the luxury — indeed, the duty — to commit many hours per week to the work of the city, our elected officials must split their time between their municipal work and their “real” jobs. For them, time, as a resource, is scarce, especially when compared to the relative abundance of the bureaucrats’ time.

In sum, our elected officials’ status as lay people and part-time citizen-legislators tends to make them dependent upon, and captive to, municipal bureaucrats who possess a comparative abundance of the key resources of credentials and time. This imbalance constitutes perhaps the defining characteristic of the relationship between Charlotte’s democracy and bureaucracy, one whose consequences ripple through the work of governance.

*******

In June 2020, amidst an ethics dilemma regarding corrupt Councilman Tariq Bokhari, Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt spoke bluntly about the relationship between Charlotte’s elected officials and its bureaucrats.

The culture among city staff throughout her entire five years on Council, she said, was “only tell council members what you want them to know,” a description of bureaucrats as gatekeepers of the information vital to good governance.

Eiselt said that even when she pressed for information and asked questions, city staff “rebuffed” her.

Maybe more than any other elected official, Councilman Braxton Winston has publicly voiced concern about redressing the imbalance between democracy and bureaucracy, advocating for City Council to play a more robust role in Charlotte’s governance.

Charlotte Councilman Braxton Winston spoke last year about the need for the forces of democracy to confront those of bureaucracy.

During the discussion of Councilman Bokhari’s corruption, when Council seemed eager to refer ethics complaints against him to outside counsel, Winston observed, “This is a question of governance. This is a question of ethics. Staff does not control that. The North Carolina General Assembly does not control that. Our attorney does not control that.” Instead, Winston argued, the duty to govern lies with the people’s representatives themselves.

He argued along similar lines after members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department conspired to attack citizen-protesters with chemical weapons in June 2020 and City Council responded symbolically by preventing CMPD from purchasing such weapons for one year.

Observed Winston, “Tonight we will vote to take immediate action while also making the commitment to do things we have always had the political ability to do, but have not been able to garner the political will to carry out.”

He further explained that a need existed “to use the council-manager form of government to insert the people’s voices into both the fiscal and operational policy decisions and implementation processes of community safety,” an argument about the imperative of democracy overcoming bureaucracy.

While Eiselt spoke of bureaucrats actively resisting elected officials, Winston, with his talk of willpower, critiqued a more nefarious arrangement whereby elected officials too often choose deference to bureaucrats and bureaucratic pressure.

Winston, despite his insight and criticism, is himself not immune to such pressure.

In a recent Twitter exchange with a constituent who advocated that the city require its employees to get COVID vaccines, Winston claimed City Council has no power to impose such a mandate because the issue touches on personnel matters, which fall under the purview of the city manager.

This is just wrong: State law gives Council power to “adopt … rules and regulations … concerning … personnel policies” and qualifies the city manager’s power over personnel matters by making his authority subject to “such general personnel rules, regulations, policies, or ordinances as the council may adopt.”

Council could mandate employee vaccines, but a municipal culture that seeks to minimize Council’s power while aggrandizing the power of the bureaucracy counsels otherwise — which brings us back to Lyles and the question of a mask mandate.

Just as Winston would have the city manager replace Council’s judgment regarding a vaccine mandate for employees, Lyles would have a committee of bureaucrats replace her judgment regarding a municipal mask mandate — both examples of democratic surrender before the overawing power of bureaucracy.

While assertiveness of the sort Winston sometimes displays may occasionally and temporarily correct some of the imbalance between democracy and bureaucracy in Charlotte, lasting, meaningful recalibration of the relationship requires structural reform — for it is the very form of our government that facilitates bureaucracy’s relative hoarding of essential resources and encourages the establishment and maintenance of bureaucracy’s dominance over democracy.

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

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