The only places that come close are San Antonio (where the city manager is the former deputy city manager in Phoenix, Sheryl Sculley) and Dallas. San Diego abandoned council-manager in 2006.
The alternative is the strong mayor form, where the mayor acts as a largely independent chief executive and the city council is a legislative body. Think: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Detroit and Seattle.
Twelve of the 20 most populous American cities have strong mayors. The remainder are council-manager. Now there is at least a boomlet to bring a strong mayor form to Phoenix.
When I returned to Phoenix in 2000, I was tilting toward strong mayor.
Yes, the movement to create and sustain professional city government in Phoenix was one of the city's major accomplishments. But that was when it was a much smaller place. Even though the mayor's powers had been increased since the 1970s, he or she was still only one vote on council. The problems and competitive challenges facing the city seemed to require "energy in the executive," as Alexander Hamilton put it in the Federalist Papers.
Now, at the risk of angering some members of the Resistance, I am much more cautious.
Look at the above list of strong-mayor cities. Good ones, less good, and in the case of Detroit, a disaster. The most successful cities have strength at the granular level — or, in the case of Chicago, corruption coexists with a world city generally producing good results, at least in recent decades.
To be sure, a strong mayor can be transformative (Federico Peña and his successors in Denver, for example), but he or she never rides alone. Conversely, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, serving a 28-year sentence for racketeering, bribery and extortion, was a product of a venal political system atop a city shattered in every way: economically, socially, spatially, racially.
With Phoenix, Greg Stanton is someone I would be very comfortable vesting with the executive powers of a strong mayor. But what happens when the energized voters of the in-city suburbs elect a Mayor "Better Call Sal" DiCiccio, darling of the tea party and all who fervently believe all Phoenix's troubles are rooted in its union-thug municipal employees?
Don't think it couldn't happen.
In many ways, Phoenix lacks a mature political culture, certainly for such a large city. Charter discouraged this kind of adversarial pluralism in the name of a unified slate of candidates for "progress" and clean government. Terry Goddard brought a deeper level of democracy to city elections with district representation, but this brought unintended consequences.
One is that city council members become royal princes, the "mayors" of districts that would be sizable cities if they stood on their own. In such a spread out place, there's little incentive to act boldly for the greater good. Unless these officials are, to use Edwin Edwards' timeless phrase, "caught with a dead girl or live boy," (or vice versa), they can serve out their term limits with little opposition. They meddle in city staff to a degree unthinkable under Charter. Also, turnout is abysmally low.
One big element missing from the polity is business. Old Phoenix was "businessmen's government," as historian William S. Collins puts it. And it wasn't only building housing. Downtown held the headquarters of the state's three dominant banks. A diverse set of companies were based here, from Goldwater's Department Stores to American Fence and Combined Communications. In the late 1960s, Greyhound (Dial) came from Chicago.
The leaders of these companies saw their private and corporate interests closely aligned with a "progressive" and healthy city of Phoenix (as seen through mid-century eyes). This was even true of Motorola, not headquartered here but the biggest employer. That's all gone. Phoenix drifts without any of the business leadership that underpins America's leading cities, certainly not Philadelphia and Houston, its competitors above in population.
Phoenix lacks the robust non-profit sector that makes cities livable, helps mayors tackle problems and attracts talent and sends out influence. The Virginia Piper Trust, although it moved to north-central Phoenix from Scottsdale, is no Lilly Endowment or Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is not even among the top 100 foundations ranked in total giving. Most arts organizations struggle.
Nor are the municipal unions the feared thuggish beasts portrayed by the council's tea party and tea-party curious minority. The firefighters have been losing elections for years. And Hispanics, the force that will "turn Arizona blue" in the minds of some political analysts? They were nearly 41 percent of the city's population in 2010. But most don't vote, even when registered.
Phoenix faces serious and urgent problems (as I discussed in detail in this post). The anti-downtown sentiment among council members is especially troubling because it translates into an unwillingness to address the weakness of the entire core. Meanwhile, reviving linear slums and the Metrocenter mess will take more than plans. Light rail should help (WBIYB). But it requires robust and diverse private investment that isn't there.
Everything has to be, ultimately, a sprawl real-estate hustle. Hence, Stanton backing a "biomedical corridor" near the Mayo Clinic in far north Phoenix. What will be the loser? The downtown biosciences campus, which still lacks a hospital, college of pharmacy, private-sector research, etc. Mayo is deliberately far from transit and brown residents, but any "corridor" will lack the dense creative energy driving quality growth in places such as San Francisco and Seattle.
Built-on-the-cheap real estate hustles remain the foundation of the Arizona economy. Phoenix still wants in on the action. But will it ever come back? The damage from the Great Recession is much more long-lasting than is popularly presented. The playerz want to move on to "Superstition Vistas" in Pinal County, not the vast empty spaces of many of Phoenix's 500 square miles. So much area, from the Gila River Indian Community in the south to beyond Anthem in the north, is a liability.
But given the current drift, what could a strong mayor do besides be at loggerheads with council? Perhaps a more modest change might be to add three at-large council seats. This might add members with a wider perspective. Unfortunately, after Citizens United and McCutcheon, it will likely add more extremist right-wingers. Never mind.
With Ed Zuercher, Phoenix has the one of the most promising city managers in its history. It might be best to listen to the ghosts of the Charter mandarins and let things be.
I don't claim to have all the answers. I hope many will write in the comments section.