Joe Mathews: Larger City Councils, Not Strong Mayors, Are the Key to Empowering Cities

The coronavirus pandemic has breathed new life into the debate over “strong mayors.” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg have recently pushed for strong mayor charter amendments that would give them the kind of executive authority enjoyed by the mayors of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland and Fresno. Proponents of the changes say they need more power to deal with big challenges like COVID-19.

Writing at Zocalo Public Square, columnist Joe Mathews argues this is not the way to go. For more effective governance, he argues cities should instead expand their city councils.

California is a huge state with very small local elected bodies. In no other state are local elected officials so few, and thus so far from the people. Our most populous cities, in particular, have tiny councils.


San Jose, with more than 1 million people, has just 11 council members. Sacramento has nine for more than 500,000, and San Diego is even worse, with nine for its 1.4 million-plus residents. No place is less representative than L.A., with just 15 council members for more than 4 million people. Such minimal representation means not just that our representatives are further from us and harder to talk to. It also means there are simply too few elected positions to reflect the kaleidoscopic diversity of California and its communities. With so few local representatives, there are fewer of the ideas that our city governments so desperately need.

Mathews notes that the council of Madrid, Spain has 57 members. Paris has 163, Tokyo 127, and Seoul 110.

Read the full article here.