In 1984, Jonathan Leopold, the city of Burlington's chief administrative officer, began setting aside a small amount of money each year so city councilors could commission studies or hire professionals to better understand proposals presented to them by city administrators.
Earlier this year, Leopold increased the fund by about $21,000, giving each of the 14 councilors $3300 for research nearly double the amount they received last year. Ostensibly, the additional funding would make councilors less reliant on mayoral staff and city department heads for the information they need to make decisions.
But councilors appeared split on the need for a larger research budget during a recent city council meeting. Jane Knodell (P-Ward 2) said she supported the increase. She pointed out that changes to the city charter eight years ago increased executive power by granting the mayor the right to hire and fire department heads. More research funding, Knodell said, will help councilors ask more "probing" questions of city officials before they make fiscal decisions.
Like Knodell, Tim Ashe (P-Ward 3) recognizes an "inherent imbalance" between councilors, who have no staff, and the mayor's office. But Ashe noted that some councilors don't spend the research money appropriated to them, and he wondered whether an increase would be a good use of city resources. "I would like to see internal procedures changed before we jump right to a funding increase," he said. For example, the city council president could interact more directly with the council committee chairs, he suggested, or the committees themselves could be restructured.
While Leopold agrees that councilors should be more informed, he doesn't concede an imbalance of power between the city's executive and legislative branches. Despite the charter change, which simply made a weak mayor only marginally "less weak," he said, the council "ultimately has the real power."
Leopold pointed out that councilors, through their votes, have the final say on all major initiatives, from selling city land to raising electric rates.
Ashe says Leopold is "technically" correct that the council can ultimately accept or reject any fiscal measure. But because councilors only work part-time, they place a "necessary dose of trust" in the administration. "That's different than having full information."