Wyoming Liberty Group
The Legislature Can Help Fix Wyoming’s City Government Problems
Wyoming’s two largest cities are currently struggling to define how city leadership will work in the near future. Cheyenne’s City Council is pressing forward with a proposal to strip the elected mayor of most of his authority in favor of a city administrator that the City Council will hire. Casper’s City Council must also find a new City Manager to take office later this year because the current manager is retiring in November.
This turmoil over how to run Wyoming’s largest cities is partially because City Council members in these cities do not trust voters—yes, the same voters that elect city council members—to elect competent leaders on their own. It is up to voters in each of Wyoming’s cities and towns to assert their power and authority over government. This means that citizens must vote and vote wisely for candidates to both the legislative and executive branches of local government. People often defend local control because, they say, local governments are closest to the people. However, if voters ignore local government elections and candidates, then they undermine this argument against federal and state interference in local affairs.
Wyoming statutes governing cities and towns contribute to the power struggle in Cheyenne as well. Under Wyoming law, First Class Cities may select one of three forms of government. Two of the three choices deprive city residents of the right to hold the chief city executive directly accountable for daily city operations at the ballot box. However, the other city government form available to Wyoming cities violates the separation of powers principle by including the mayor, along with the city council members on the city’s governing body.
These struggles for city power hurt residents because they are not struggles between independent equals. The separation of powers principle assumes that an independent executive will clash with an independent legislative branch. However, both sides must be guaranteed to survive the struggle as an independent institution. The main consequence of these power struggles is that little new legislation is passed. Even though commentators will criticize unproductive government, citizens benefit from a government that can’t agree to change rules or spend taxpayer money on new projects. The inherent check on new spending can be effective at the local level just as it can be at the state or federal levels of government.
So where does this leave Wyoming cities that are struggling to decide what future leadership will look like? The Wyoming legislation can help by improving some laws that govern cities and towns with these changes:
The statutes make the mayor “presiding officer of the governing body” and grant the mayor one vote in almost all matters coming before the governing body. The mayor already has veto authority over matters passed by the governing body. In other contexts, the chairperson of a meeting can only cast a vote to break a tie. The mayor does not need to vote in most cases. Allowing the mayor to both chair and vote in city council meetings undermines separation of powers principles.
(2) Carve out an additional classification of cities to govern the largest cities in the state that will increasingly face more complex challenges than smaller towns and cities do.
Even though Cheyenne and Casper are very small cities when compared to familiar global cities like New York or even Denver, they both contain more than 50,000 people. Therefore both are “Metropolitan Statistical Areas” for Federal purposes. This means that Cheyenne and Casper, along with the surrounding, urbanized portions of Laramie and Natrona counties receive dedicated transportation and housing funds directly from the Federal government. In addition, approximately 40% of all Wyoming’s population growth since the 2010 census has occurred within the cities of Cheyenne and Casper. More surprising, Laramie and Natrona counties account for over half of Wyoming’s population growth since 2010.
Simply put, the Wyoming legislature must come to grips with the fact that Wyoming’s population is increasingly urban and is becoming more concentrated in the largest cities. Assuming this urbanization trend continues here, as it has throughout the world over recent centuries, legislators should foresee more power struggles like those happening now in Cheyenne and Casper. Therefore, the Wyoming legislature should take these steps to improve the structure of city government in at least those cities that have outgrown their small-town status and are facing increasingly complex urban challenges.