|The Mega-city in Latin America (UNU, 1996, 282 pages)|
|3. Contemporary issues in the government and administration of Latin American mega-cities|
Before turning to the analysis of mega-city government structures in Latin America, it is interesting to examine the structures of local government in the United States and in the United Kingdom. There are important differences between the two systems, particularly in the role party politics plays in electoral competition for office. In the United States, most city elections are non-partisan; people elect their councillors and mayors without consideration of whether they are Republican or Democrat. In the United Kingdom, the opposite is true; voters choose between candidates almost entirely on the basis of their declared party affiliation. This means that national political parties dominate local government much more in the United Kingdom than in the United States.
City government in the United States
In the United States, four clear premises underpin local
government. First, the people elect their representatives. Second, there is a
system of checks and balances which protects city government from excessive interference by federal and state administrations. Third, cities have considerable autonomy over many of their own affairs, administering their own taxes, setting their own utility charges, running primary and secondary education, policing themselves, and operating their own planning departments. Finally, most local authorities have relatively small populations and may cover only a part or a suburb of a larger urban tract. Most large urban areas contain a number of city governments. 1
Within each city, the administrative structure normally fits one of the three basic models depicted in figure 3.1. In each case practices vary for the election of council members: in some cases council members represent individual districts of a city; elsewhere they may be elected from across the whole city. Some cities have a mixture of both, with key council positions (the mayor, for example) being elected by the whole city electorate.
Strong mayor- weak council: In cities such as Denver and Houston, the mayor has "strong" powers particularly over the selection of key officials (police chief, city attorney, treasurer, and department heads at city hall). These are important posts because they deal with sensitive areas such as personal security, civil rights, and financial management, which will determine whether the mayor is re-elected. The council is highly constrained in the extent to which it can overturn the mayor's decisions.
Weak mayor - strong council: In Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, the mayor has much less power. The council hires and fires officials by majority vote and the mayor rarely has the right to veto a council decision. Sometimes, key officials are popularly elected, canvassing on the basis of their own mandate, independently of the council or mayor.
The city manager: Cities such as Austin or Dallas are run more like business enterprises. The elected council hires a city manager, who appoints the city's principal officers and carries full responsibility for running the city's affairs. The manager is accountable to the council and can be dismissed only by majority (or, in some places, by a two-thirds majority) vote. The city has a mayor, who often presides over council meetings, but day-to-day decisions are made by the manager. This structure is becoming increasingly common in the United States, particularly in cities with less than 250,000 inhabitants, where it predominates. Among the larger cities, around half have managers and of the largest ten cities, four have managers.
City government in the United Kingdom
Figure 3.2 shows that British cities are administered by councils. Councillors are elected as representatives of political parties, the vast majority from the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democratic parties. The largest party in the council determines policy; if there is
no outright majority a coalition between parties is necessary. This "parliamentary" system is serviced by a hierarchy of civil service officers whose role it is to implement policy. Professional, non-partisan officials are appointed by the council and continue in post even when the council changes. These officials service all council committees and run the city on a daily basis. The key power broker is not the mayor, who presides over the council and whose duties are largely ceremonial, but the council leader. The latter is elected from among the councillors of the majority party. Councils exercise a range of powers at the borough or city level, but are bound by the national laws laid down by Parliament.
Until the 1980s, metropolitan councils existed in London and six other conurbations to manage city-wide issues such as strategic planning and public transport.2 They were abolished by the Thatcher government, which wished to break the Labour Party's hold over most of these councils. At that time most metropolitan government policies were almost diametrically opposed to those of the national government.
The principal weakness of local government in Britain is that it is so dependent on central government for its finance. Approximately 70 per cent of local government funding comes from central grants. In addition, the government currently places a series of controls over spending by local authorities. With councils being elected on the basis of political party affiliation, local policy hardly differs from area to area. When local priorities differ from national policy, local government is likely to come under attack.
This description of local government in the United States and Britain offers six basic principles by which metropolitan areas in Latin America might be administered. First, urban governments should be democratic. Whatever the administrative and management structure adopted, those serving in a policymaking capacity should be elected. There is no need for the officers in charge of implementing policy to be elected, provided that they are responsible and accountable to the council. Second, city government procedures and decisions should be transparent and all officers and councillors should be publicly accountable. Third, one authority should exist with responsibility for the whole of the city. Such a body should have power over certain metropolitan wide concerns such as strategic planning, land-use zoning, transport policy, and responsibility for major infrastructure programmes and services. Fourth, all other responsibilities should be decentralized to lower-level bodies. Fifth, public participation should be maximized and, wherever possible, power should be devolved to local communities and neighbourhoods. Finally, metropolitan authorities should have considerable fiscal autonomy. This is important if mandated authorities are to act without interference from higher levels of government.