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Cheyenne Citizens Can Still Protect Separation of Power in City Government

Our founding Fathers understood the importance of an independent executive branch of government. The Cheyenne City Council however, is preparing to ask citizens to vote on a City Charter amendment that would create an appointed administrator to replace the independent, strong mayor for most executive functions. The appointed City Administrator would answer to the City Council—not directly to the voters. This would concentrate almost all the power of local government into the legislative branch and lessen the accountability of government to the people. The City Council is barreling ahead with a special election to ram this change through, but citizens still have time to fix the proposed charter amendment or defeat the power grab entirely. Sheridan’s citizens were not so fortunate earlier this year when the Sheridan City Council decided to start the process to create a City Administrator position without a special election.

Thomas Jefferson harshly criticized the City Administrator style structure when it was used by his native Virginia, writing:

“The concentrating [of all the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary] in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. 173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one.” (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia)

Despite Jefferson’s warning about how the concentration of power leads to despotism, Cheyenne’s City Council is pressing ahead. Not only will the City Council hire an administrator to assume many of the elected Mayor’s powers, but the Council’s hireling will then chose whom to nominate as municipal judges, department directors, and even various citizens’ committee members subject to City Council approval.

Even as the new City Administrator proposal progresses, citizens still have two opportunities to claw back some of the authority they risk losing.

First, the proposed charter amendment that creates the appointed city administrator position is still in draft form. It is the “Charter Ordinance” that the city council will consider on Third Reading and vote on twice over the next two weeks. This means citizens can urge city council members to either abandon the city administrator idea or change how it divides duties and powers between the City Administrator’s Office and the Mayor’s Office. For example, the current draft proposal assigns the power to appoint municipal judges to the City Administrator, subject to confirmation by the City Council. The City Council should amend the proposed charter ordinance to restore judicial appointments to the mayor. In fact, the City Council can still change any of the draft provisions before they vote on Monday, August 10 whether to hold a special election in November.

However, the window of time to amend the wording or stop the charter amendment ballot proposal entirely is closing rapidly. The Council’s Committee of the Whole will consider the city administrator issue one more time on Wednesday, August 5 at 6:00 p.m. in City Council Chambers. After that, the final chance for citizens to persuade the City Council to make changes to the city administrator proposal or abandon the proposal entirely will be at the Cheyenne City Council meeting on Monday, August 10 at 6:00 p.m. in City Council Chambers. The City Council will likely hold the final vote on the ordinance to hold a special election at the August 10 meeting.

After the August 10 meeting, the next chance for Cheyenne citizens to defend voting rights by killing this proposal will be at the special election in November. The special election will ask voters whether to create an appointed city administrator position to take over much of the authority that now belongs to Cheyenne’s directly elected mayor.

Thankfully, Cheyenne’s City Council plans to put the City Administrator proposal to a vote of the people. But there is still time to stop this process by insisting that we maintain our ability to directly elect an equally powerful, separate level of government that is directly accountable to the people. You have the opportunity to make your voice heard before the process goes too far. As our Founding Fathers understood, concentration of power leads to despotism.

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Wednesday, 23 August 2017
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