Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Hope for Harmony: With a new administration in Harrisburg, let’s wish for better relations between the mayor and council

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

Last month, Wanda R. D. Williams was sworn in as the 39th mayor of Harrisburg, ushering in a new era of leadership in the city.

The mid-morning inauguration was replete with the soaring rhetoric, pledges and prayers that normally befit such an occasion.

That’s completely appropriate, as new mayors should be allowed time to take pride in their considerable achievement.

And so ends day one.

Day two inevitably delivers something different—the reality of the tough road ahead.

There’s a budget to redraft and pass. There are department heads to confirm. Managers need to learn their positions, their people, the way things are done around city hall. The to-do list goes on and on.

Harrisburg’s last three mayors all went about their jobs in different ways, with very different demeanors and with differing results. City residents soon will understand that Williams, too, has her own way of doing things.

Having said this, despite their profound differences, Williams’ predecessors shared one common trait, and, unfortunately, it wasn’t a positive one.

All three—mayors Reed, Thompson and Papenfuse—had generally poor relations with City Council. So, if there’s one thing I wish for the new mayor at the jump, it’s this—that her administration is able to maintain a respectful and productive working relationship with the city’s legislative branch.

In a dual-branch government, a natural tension exists between the executive and the legislature. They are, after all, two nodes of power, and clashes between them are almost certain. However, in Harrisburg, the relationship has been particularly rough, which has affected the government’s ability to serve the public as well as it should.

Mayor Reed’s approach to council was to co-opt, pressure and coerce. During election cycles, he often put up a “Reed team,” a group of candidates he backed in the hope that they would support his policies. But what’s that old saying—they got bought, but didn’t stay bought? Over time, many council members went their own way, earning the mayor’s open contempt, so that, come the next election, there was a new “Reed team,” which tried to unseat the old one.

Unfortunately, Mayor Thompson adopted some of Reed’s ways, mimicking his imperious governing style. Like her predecessor, she refused to attend council meetings, holing up in her office as, just a floor below, council members debated such critical issues as whether or not to declare municipal bankruptcy. Soon, a solid majority turned against Thompson, preventing her doing much of anything—until the commonwealth stepped in and imposed its own will on the city.

For Papenfuse, the sour tone also began early, when, after just a month in office, he slammed council for cutting the proposed salaries for several of his department heads. After that, the relationship had some ups, but many downs. To his credit, Papenfuse understood the importance of being present at council meetings, putting in face time and having real-time, substantive discussions with council. Nonetheless, members continually complained (as they also did under Reed and Thompson) that the administration didn’t keep them adequately informed, that they received vital information at the last minute, and that the administration was not responsive enough to their questions and concerns. Also, like the mayors before him, Papenfuse didn’t hesitate to publicly condemn council members who didn’t vote his way.

Now, I don’t mean to lay all the blame at the feet of the mayors. Some council members deserve their share, especially those who, over the years, have seemed more interested in grandstanding than governing. However, in the end, Harrisburg has a “strong mayor” form of government, with a full-time chief executive. That puts the primary onus on the mayor to set the tone, set the agenda and see policies through to passage.

A functional city government depends upon a healthy working relationship between the mayor and council and this, ideally, would include the following:

  • Mayors should regard council members as equal partners in the governing process, not as annoyances, necessary evils or obstacles to get around. Both branches should treat the other with respect.
  • Mayors should provide council with as complete, honest and timely information as possible, as early as possible.
  • Mayors should build relationships with members consistently over time and understand the value of lobbying them on important issues. I’ve often been shocked at how little interaction and communication there seems to be between mayors and council members outside of 6 p.m. on Tuesdays.
  • Mayors must be present at council meetings to answer questions, offer information, and participate in the legislative process in real-time.

Now, I’m no Pollyanna. I understand that differences and disagreements happen, as is always the case in the sausage-making process of passing laws and governing. In addition, council has an enormously important role to play providing oversight of the executive branch, which itself can lead to conflict.

However, there’s healthy conflict for good reasons, in which the antagonists still respect each other and can work together constructively. And then there’s unhealthy, dysfunctional conflict, which becomes personalized and bitter and bleeds over into other issues, to the detriment of the public and its business. In Harrisburg, there’s been too much of the latter, for too long.

Lawrance Binda is the co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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