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JR in Charge? City Government 101 - 02/26/14

At a recent city commission meeting, Mayor Robb announced that she is in charge of the city of Deerfield Beach. She shouted to someone in the audience, "I'm in charge of this city."

JR may think she is in charge, but anyone who has read the city charter and knows anything about the council-manager form of city government knows that Robb is not in charge of anything. No one person is. It's a matter of checks and balances.

If you passed civics in middle school, you know the concept of separation of powers. You know there are three kinds of legal authority the government exercises. One is the power to make laws. Another is the power to enforce the laws. The third is the power of the courts to tell public officials what they must do, can do, or cannot do under the laws.

At the federal level, the scheme is to separate these powers and divide them among three different, but co-equal, power centers, or branches the executive, legislative, and judicial. At the state level, it's a bit more complicated. That's because the state has police or municipal powers, mostly exercised through local sub-divisions of the state cities, counties, special districts, and so forth.

Police power is the right of the city to carry off your trash, tell you to mow your lawn, limit the size of your business signs, arrest you for skinny dipping at the beach in broad daylight, and a multitude of other powers, including the right to levy taxes to pay for the city's administration. In other words, the police or municipal power is most all those "services" the City of Deerfield Beach provides to its residents.

The separation of powers at the federal and, to some extent, at the state level is supposed to prevent any one person or group from gaining too much power, unchecked, endangering the rights and liberties of the citizens. Checks and balances, it's called.

At the local level, it's different. There are any number of ways to organize a city, but the typical way is to vest all the powers of the city legislative, executive, and some judicial in a board of so-many people. Thus, one power center, but no single, anointed power figure.

This is important because the police power has no set metes and bounds, save for higher laws, and can be exercised for virtually any purpose the city decides is necessary. It's easy to abuse. The way the city is set up, if it works, ensures that no one person can rule the government without the consent of the people directly or without the majority consent of their representatives.

No, Jean Robb is not in charge of the city; nor is anyone else.

This particular scheme of checks and balances is best illustrated by the city charter itself. Here are seven things we can learn by reading the charter:

1. Virtually all the police or municipal power is vested in a board consisting of five elected commissioners. Charter 1.01 provides that "The City of Deerfield Beach ... shall have all governmental, corporate and proprietary powers to enable it to conduct municipal government, perform municipal functions, render municipal services, and may exercise any power for municipal purposes except as otherwise provided by law."

Charter 3.08 further states, "All powers of the city shall be vested in the commission, except as otherwise provided for by law or this Charter .... "

2. No action has legal force and effect unless approved by a majority of the commission. Charter 3.15(7) states, "No action of the commission, except as otherwise provided in this Charter [or by law], shall be valid or binding unless adopted by the affirmative vote of the majority of the commission."

3. The mayor presides over commission meetings when she's present. She has one vote. The city commission consists of five members, one of whom, 3.01, "shall be the duly elected mayor."

She "shall preside at meetings of the commission and shall be recognized as head of the city government for all ceremonial purposes .... " In other words,

4. The mayor cuts ribbons.

5. The mayor has "no administrative duties." No duties, no power. With one narrow exception, prescribed in 3.06(a), she has no executive power and nothing resembling executive prerogative.

6. Under 3.18(1) the mayor has certain ministerial duties (meaning she has no discretion whether or not to perform them). She has no veto or pocket-veto power.

7. The city manager does what he's hired to do. Except when delegated by the commission or in emergency situations, he has no executive power or prerogative.

The city manager's functions are outlined in 4.03.

The city manager shall be the chief administrative officer of the city. He shall be responsible to the commission for the administration of all city affairs placed in his charge by or under this Charter. [He shall have the powers and duties enumerated by the Charter],

Perform such other duties as are specified in this Charter, by law, or as required by the commission [and,]

In time of emergency or disaster, assume full temporary direction of all municipal operations in the absence of the mayor and vice-mayor.

Now, this is the way the system is supposed to work. But no system is perfect. As the Krauthammer quote at the top of this page says, "The system may not always work, but it does take its revenge."

In the early 2000s, former city manager Larry R. Deetjen politicized the office of manager. LRD meddled in the political affairs of the city in areas he wasn't supposed to go. The commission, at the time, acquiesced in LRD's well-documented abuses of power, perhaps because, in some cases, it served their own political interests. Eventually, however, it all came to a head, and LRD was ousted.

What if today, an elected official had an exaggerated and fanciful view of her authority and purpose?

The mayor has "no administrative duties," but decides, anyway, to meddle in administrative affairs. This is where another charter provision comes into play. Charter 3.09(3) provides:

Except for the purpose of inquiries and investigations, the commission or its members shall deal with city officers and employees who are subject to the direction and supervision of the city manager solely through the city manager, and neither the commission nor its members shall give orders to any such officer or employee, either publicly or privately. Nothing in the foregoing is to be construed to prohibit individual members of the commission from examining by question and personal observation all aspects of city government operations so as to obtain independent information to assist the members in the formulation of policies to be considered by the commission and assure the implementation of such policies as have been adopted.

It is the express intent of this provision, however, that such inquiry shall not interfere directly with the regular municipal operations of the city and that recommendations for change or improvement in city government operations be made to and through the city manager.

There is a growing body of evidence, I am told, that Mayor Robb is in routine violation of this charter provision. If she's "in charge," as she apparently believes, it's no wonder. But what's the recourse?

Injunction? It's an interesting idea, but who has standing to sue? The city manager? The commission? One thing, for certain, it would make for a novel case.

Malfeasance? The problem here is that the charter provision contains fine lines. It could be difficult to prove malfeasance or misfeasance unless there were serious consequences to the interference, for example, violation of somebody's civil rights.

Censure? The commission could certainly censure any member in violation of this rule.

Another option would be an ordinance establishing some sort of enforcement mechanism for the charter provision.

It's something the commission could consider if it feels JR's alleged intrusions into the administration of the city is a serious problem.



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