Williamsburg Mayor Jeanne Zeidler and City Manager Jack Tuttle addressed College of William and Mary students and community residents last night in a discussion at Alan B. Miller Hall aimed at clarifying the structure and responsibilities of local government.
The meeting was mediated by government professor John McGlennon and co-sponsored by the Student Assembly and the City of Williamsburg.
The city currently employs a council-manager government system, in which the five members of the Williamsburg City Council are publicly elected for four-year terms. The council then nominates the mayor.
Zeidler said her primary responsibilities include presiding over council meetings, maintaining a decorous atmosphere among council members, and communicating council decisions to the public.
“People think of the mayor as having tremendous power within the city,” she said. “I see the mayor as first among [council] members … I see my vote as maybe the first vote or the last vote, but it’s only one vote. The power of the City Council is a collective power.”
Council decisions are passed by a simple three-fifths majority vote.
The council also appoints a city manager with strong educational and professional credentials to oversee ground-level operations. The city manager decides how best to apply the budget to meet the city’s needs and reports any deficient areas to the council.
The city manager also ensures that individual city departments, such as the police and building departments, are performing efficiently and responsibly.
Zeidler said her personal opinion is irrelevant when representing the council.
“People do think of the mayor as being in charge,” she said. “So there is perhaps a greater expectation but also a greater responsibility on my part to speak for, not myself, but to speak for the council and the council’s actions.”
The most important responsibility of the council is adopting the yearly city budget, Zeidler said.
Both Zeidler and Tuttle responded to concerns that the council may be affected by partisan agendas.
“We run as independents,” said Zeidler. “Party politics just doesn’t get in the way of the real issues that you’re dealing with at the local level, which very often have very little to do with the debate that goes on between the parties at the national or even the state level … so when you get down to it, what matters is what’s happening on the ground, and those issues are a lot more important than Republican or Democrat.”
Tuttle agreed with Zeidler, saying that his position in particular required an unbiased mind.
“From the manager’s standpoint, the nonpartisan nature is a big plus,” Tuttle said.
According to Tuttle, all of Virginia’s 95 counties and 39 cities, except the City of Richmond, use the council-manager system.
Some attendees questioned the city’s ability to change its government structure.
“It is not required [by the state], but it is the preferred structure,” McGlennon said. “Local governments can petition the state for a different form of government.”
Zeidler said she believed the economic downturn and other city problems are handled most effectively by this government structure. She said that the council would continue to work closely with Williamsburg citizens to address and resolve problems.