What’s the Difference?

What’s the Difference?


How weak mayor, strong mayor systems work

Last April, an Alameda resident involved Mayor Trish Spencer in a dispute with the Alameda Police Department (APD). Spencer contacted APD Chief Paul Rolleri, asking to set up a meeting about the incident. “I would like to discuss this ASAP,” Spencer stated in an email. Rolleri politely deferred to City Manager Jill Keimach, telling Spencer that he will share whatever he learns. Spencer had little choice but to abide by Rolleri’s decision. 

Rolleri’s officers stood firmly behind him. APD Sergeant Alan Kuboyama wrote a letter to Keimach praising Rolleri’s handling of the matter and criticizing Spencer for “inserting herself in matters outside the scope of her elected position.” Kuboyama is the president of the Alameda Police Organization, the union that represents the police officers in town.

In June, Oakland Mayor Schaaf faced a sex scandal at the Oakland Police Department. She quickly stepped in and, in rapid succession, relieved not one, but three chiefs of police of their duties.  “I’m hoping to not have to fire anyone else anytime soon,” she said as she announced the firing of the third chief, and she was laughing as she said it. 

The Oakland sex scandal was much more serious than the resident’s dispute in Alameda. However, these examples help demonstrate the difference between Oakland’s strong mayor and Alameda’s weak mayor forms of government. When Schaaf fired the three police chiefs, she was acting well within the scope of her elected position. When Spencer inserted herself in a dispute with APD, she was not. 

As a strong mayor, Schaaf performs the role of her city’s chief executive officer. On the other hand, Alameda’s City Charter relegates Spencer’s duties to “official and ceremonial.” Schaaf does not sit on Oakland’s City Council, and can exercise veto power over it. Spencer sits on Alameda’s City Council. She presides over the meetings as “first among equals.”

Alameda’s City Charter vests the role of the city’s chief executive officer in the city manager. That explains why Rolleri deferred to Keimach instead of offering to meet with Spencer and why the police officers’ union addressed its letter to Keimach without sending a copy to Spencer.

In the case of a city’s mayor, it is often not a matter of how a mayor plays his or her role — whether weak or strong — but how a city’s charter defines that role.