Fort Worth will have a new mayor, but here’s who has the real power in Cowtown

·13 min read

On the last day of early voting in April, while mayoral candidates campaigned and visited polling sites, Fort Worth’s top leader was in a downtown coffee shop tinkering with his phone as he waited for a reporter to arrive. He didn’t have to worry about turnout or vote totals because the May 1 election had no bearing on his job. Neither will the forthcoming runoff between Deborah Peoples and Mattie Parker. Whatever happens, David Cooke will still be in charge of the city.

Cooke, who makes around $350,000 in annual salary, has been Fort Worth’s city manager since 2014. Even though Mayor Betsy Price is the city’s most public-facing politician, Cooke is the most powerful person in the city — not that many people likely even realize who Cooke is. “One of the challenges you see here in Fort Worth is for voters to really understand how the system operates,” said Emily Farris, a TCU associate professor who specializes in urban politics. “Who’s accountable ... who’s making decisions?”

This is the reality of local government in Fort Worth, as well as many big cities in Texas. Under Fort Worth’s form of government, known as the council-manager system, the city manager runs the city while the mayor has the same amount of power as any city council member, plus the role of unofficial spokesperson. If the city were a business, the mayor would be the chairman of the board and the city manager the CEO.

Across the country, the council-manager form of government exists in about 61% of cities with populations of 100,000 or more, according to James Svara, a retired Arizona State and University of North Carolina professor who has extensively researched local governments. Another 39% have a strong mayor form of government, where there is no city manager and the mayor generally appoints prominent city officials and proposes annual budgets. Among America’s largest cities, however, Fort Worth is an outlier. Twenty of America’s 30 largest cities have strong mayor governments. Eight other cities besides Fort Worth have the council-manager form, and three of them are in Texas (Dallas, Austin and San Antonio). Houston is Texas’ lone major city that uses the strong mayor system.

So how did Fort Worth come to have this type of government? What does the mayor really do? And does it make sense for such a large city to use the council-manager system?

Why did Fort Worth switch to a council-manager format?

In the early 20th century, America’s cities went through a period of intense growth. They needed streets, clean water and real sewage systems. Some cities, run by corrupt or incompetent mayors and city commissioners, did not adequately usher their cities into the modern era. Others were run by part-time officials with demanding day jobs who could not devote enough time to their civic positions.

In 1908, Staunton, Virginia, a city of 10,000, introduced an entirely new form of government by hiring a full-time engineer to work on the city’s concerns with an elected council. Unencumbered by the election cycle, it was believed this person would not let politics — or the restraints of another day job — get in the way. The press started calling him a city manager, and Staunton basically created the council-manager government system.

“The intent ... really was to sort of separate out government operations from partisan politics and to try to provide a layer of insulation from that,” said Kimberly Nelson, a professor of public administration and government at the University of North Carolina. “This was created during the time where political machines were really popular. The idea was to borrow from business.”

The system particularly caught on among developing southern and western cities. The large cities on the East Coast already had well-established strong mayor political systems. By 1915, the National Municipal League, an influential civic engagement nonprofit, recommended the city manager system for all cities. The movement made its way to Fort Worth in 1924 when a group of businessmen proposed a change to the city charter. A special election to decide Fort Worth’s form of government was scheduled for Dec. 11 that year.

Fort Worth had been under a commission form of government: Elected commissioners were in charge of various city services. As they lobbied for the interests of their own departments, the growing city of 100,000 struggled to provide adequate services to newly annexed areas, and residents didn’t want to pay increased taxes to a government they didn’t think was performing to a high enough standard. “The whole notion was (a council-manager system) would create a more efficient government,” said Robert Fairbanks, a professor at UT Arlington who has researched the histories of Dallas and Fort Worth. (Fairbanks added that some commission members had ties with the Ku Klux Klan, which wielded major influence in Fort Worth in the 1920s.)

But there was still plenty of opposition. The pro-city manager group largely consisted of the downtown business community and wealthy residents who lived in areas like Arlington Heights and Mistletoe Heights. The opponents were working class, often involved with organized labor, and they lived in neighborhoods on the perimeter of the city, like the North Side. The dueling groups bought ads in the Star-Telegram and the defunct Record-Telegram, and held rallies and informational meetings for several months.

On election day, about 12,000 people turned out to vote — out of 26,000 registered voters — and the new form of government prevailed with 6,788 “yes” votes to 5,368 “no” votes. The council-manager system gave Fort Worth a city manager who would be employed by nine at-large council members.

The council-manager system stayed largely unchanged for decades during an era known for the Fort Worth way, where business interests were usually satisfied and residents of color were neglected. In 1977, Fort Worth council members were placed in district seats, opening the door for better representation of disenfranchised Black and Hispanic areas of the city.

What exactly do the mayor and city manager do now?

The city manager hires and fires all city department heads, needing approval from council for major positions like police chief. The city manager and staff also make the formal pitch to city council for major proposals — including the annual budget — and the council votes on their passage. While the mayor and council can suggest and review policies, the city manager and staff often come up with ideas on their own. “If we see things that need to change, we’ll bring those things forward,” Cooke said. He gave an example of a recent meeting where they discussed changing a sidewalk policy. “That’s not coming from a council member.” Cooke said. “But it’s something we think that we need to do.”

City council members do exert influence over the city manager in one major way: They can vote to fire the city manager at any time.

In typical strong mayor systems, the duties of the city manager essentially belong to the mayor. It’s the mayor who appoints and removes the key city officials. It’s the mayor who creates the budget along with many other key pieces of legislation. Depending on the city, the mayor usually exerts veto power over the city council. (In Houston, the mayor is unusually strong, with the ability to dictate what goes on the city council’s agenda.)

In Fort Worth, the mayor officially has the same power as any other council member: a single vote on policies with no veto. But the mayor also has more influence in organizing meetings and a larger salary ($29,000 per year, compared to $25,000 for the rest of council). The big difference between the mayor and the other eight council members is a public perception of greater power. Parker, who served as chief of staff to Price and council for five years, said the position comes with a “bully pulpit.” The mayor, she said, can use the platform to interact with the general public and advocate on their behalf, building consensus on priorities the mayor sets between the council, the city manager and other city officials. “To be effective,” Parker said, “you have to be cooperative and collaborative.”

Her opponent in the runoff, Peoples, said, “In Fort Worth I think the mayor has to be the key spokesperson and salesperson for the city.” Peoples sees the city manager and mayor as complementing each other. “I can be this great salesperson while making sure I have an administrative person making sure the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed,” she said.

One of Price’s top accomplishments, the national health program called Blue Zones, provides a good example for how she used her influence as Fort Worth mayor. Price worked as a top organizer in bringing Blue Zones to Fort Worth, which has seen its nationwide ranking for health and well-being improve dramatically. On a list of achievements she included on a past campaign website, she used words like leading, engaging and supporting to describe her role. That is the general extent of a Fort Worth mayor’s work. The mayor may discuss, influence and build consensus for policy, but it’s the city manager and the city manager’s appointed staff who carry them out and run the city.

Does city manager make sense for a city of 910,000?

Fort Worth is now home to 910,000 people. It is far more diverse in terms of race and class and interest groups than the mostly homogenous city in which the council-manager system arose 100 years ago. “The world we live in now, the city as a whole organic identity no longer exists,” Fairbanks, the UT Arlington professor, said.

To Jered Carr, a professor of urban policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the professionalization of government through a city manager is a potential weakness in big cities. City managers may be ill-equipped to handle conflicts that arise among constituents who have divergent goals. “The real strength of the council-manager system is most evident in smaller communities. And then as you get bigger, the same advantages aren’t there,” Carr said. “If anything, there’s probably an argument that as your city gets pretty large, as you start to have significant policy conflict, that you want someone that people can focus on to drive policy change. That’s going to be an elected executive and not an appointed executive.”

Ideally, the city council members are supposed to represent the various interests of a diverse population. Fort Worth, however, has been accused of having inequitable city council districts, and the makeup of the city council, with just one Hispanic member, does not reflect the city’s 35% Hispanic population.

Farris is also concerned about what she describes as a “coziness” to the relationship between the council and the city manager. She pointed to December’s announced move of city hall to the former Pier 1 headquarters as an example of council quickly going along with the city manager’s proposal. “The process of ‘we need a new building’ was a long time coming,” Farris said. “But the actual decision of ‘we’re going to move into the old Pier 1 building’ was proposed and voted on within two weeks. There was very little kind of consult with the community with let’s talk to different groups, citizens.”

Proponents of council-manager governments say the system produces beneficial results regardless of a city’s size. In one study, Nelson, the North Carolina professor, found pay-to-play style corruption occurs more than 50% as often in strong mayor cities as in council-manager cities. While business interests pushed for the council-manager systems in Fort Worth and elsewhere, she said it’s more likely they could find sweetheart deals in a strong mayor system where budgeting power is in the hands of an elected mayor. “You have one contact person you can bribe and potentially get that through,” Nelson said. “With the council-manager form, it’s a lot harder, because you would have to convince a set of elected officials and have the majority of them to go along with it.”

Svara, the retired professor, said the council-manager system lends consistency, guaranteeing a degree of professionalism that may not exist if an inadequate mayor is elected. “City managers are expected to provide balance and oversight of government performance,” he said. “They are subject to oversight and accountability on a continuous basis.”

Cooke agreed that a top advantage of Fort Worth’s council-manager system is the professionalization. “Government is really just a series of businesses,” he said, adding that city managers know how to hire experienced people for water, police and parks departments without caring about potential political favors. “Who do you want to run the streets of Fort Worth? Somebody that’s connected politically, or somebody that knows how to maintain streets and plan for future infrastructure, and balance all those things against each other?”

Could Fort Worth change its form of government?

There is no major movement in the works, although Fort Worth’s city charter includes language for citizen-led referendums.

In Austin, residents had the opportunity to remove Austin’s city manager and switch to a strong mayor government this spring after a group called Austinites for Progressive Reform got 24,000 signatures on a petition. But 86% of voters were against the change in the May 1 election, and Austin remains a council-manager city. Dallas voters also turned down a proposal to switch to strong mayor in 2005. Elsewhere, like in San Diego, big cities have made the switch. At least 11 cities with 100,000-plus populations have changed to strong mayor since 1990, according to Svara, while 12 cities have rejected proposals like Austin.

Can Fort Worth have visionary leaders in its system?

In 2012, then San Antonio mayor Julián Castro introduced a pre-kindergarten program funded through sales tax. He had city staff work on the details for the legislation and got the support of the city council and voters, who approved the legislation in a 2012 vote. It all happened within the confines of a council-manager system that is similar to Fort Worth’s.

Parker pointed to this as an example for how mayors can still produce bold policies in Fort Worth’s system of government. “If you have a mayor who can build consensus and communicate with council members why the priority matters, it’s just that simple,” she said.

Nelson echoed many of the same sentiments, saying city managers can have forward-thinking plans, too, aside from their day-to-day focus on city services. And although she favors the council-manager form of government, she said the personnel matters for any city.

“Any system, I think, can work well,” she said, “if the right people are there in office.”