This post was previously published as Memphis magazine’s City Journal column:

It’s hard to find a major U.S. city these days that isn’t experimenting with creative policies and programs that aren’t breathtaking in their scope.

It’s within this environment that mayors have emerged as America’s most inventive elected leaders.

They are becoming leaders for global warming with more than 500 of them signing on to the Kyoto Accords and others are reaching far beyond the borders of their cities to create regional agendas that include “complete streets” built for more than cars, light rail systems, place branding, sustainable growth, massive cultural investments and data-driven performance budgeting.

Back To Basics

Most of all, however, cities are working hard to get the basics right – better schools, safer neighborhoods and efficient public services.

At a time when national conversations on key issues regularly centers on the successes in American cities, Memphis is noticeably ignored. At a time when the chief aptitude of a successful mayor is as a salesperson, the candidates selling themselves for mayor are met with a noticeably unenthusiastic voting public.

Meanwhile, Memphis City Council races are doing just the opposite. Inspired by the chance to transform the legislative body with eight new members, the public appears excited for a fresh start unseen since the first Council took office in 1968.

Asking A Different Question

Emerging about the same time as the new city legislative body was the idea of consolidating city and county governments and it that continues today – despite two failed referendum votes and little prospect today for successfully merging the two local governments.

Consolidation is just the kind of innovation that could get Memphis some national attention for the kinds of dramatic action that’s putting other cities into the spotlight as progressive places. However, maybe Memphis has been too narrowly focused on a preconceived answer while the real question is how to create a more effective structure of local government.

When this is the question, there’s another possibility besides consolidation – changing the Mayor-Council form of government in Memphis to Council-City Manager.

Managing The City

It’s a form of local government more common than commonly known. In fact, in the past decade, it overtook the Mayor-Council form to become the most popular form of city government in the U.S. Today, roughly 60 percent of cities with population of more than 60,000 have Council-City Manager governments, including Dallas, San Jose, Boulder, San Diego, Kansas City, San Antonio, Sacramento, and Dayton.

In a 2002 report presented to the American Accounting Association by researchers from Texas A & M University and Auburn University said that “based on samples of large cities from the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, the findings support the perspective that the city manager cities substantially outperform mayor-council cities.”

The centerpiece of these cities is a professional public administrator hired by the Council to recommend a budget, develop programs, and manage the day-to-day operations of city departments and agencies. The Council sets the over-arching vision for the city, and the city manager then lays out a plan to accomplish it.

It’s Not A Job, It’s An Adventure

Because the city manager is not a politician, appointments of division directors and department heads are not based on political motivations, cronyism, or a political buddy system.

The creation of the CAO’s position in Memphis city government was a not completely successful experiment in bringing this level of professionalism to city management, but for every CAO success story, there are three stories of failure.

In its own way, city managers represent more than jobs, but the philosophy that a nonpolitical manager can bring a higher level of ethics and efficiency. It is the catechism taught and practiced in public administration schools that produce today’s city managers.

Less Ego, More Action

But appointing the city manager is just the first step to bringing more rationality to local government. With the city council in ascendancy and the city mayor more ceremonial, the Shelby County mayor can become the dominant political figure in the region, eliminating the confused looks that inevitably greet corporate leaders considering our community for investment.

But that’s not all. Without the need to fight over territory or political ego, the city manager could begin the substantive talks with the Shelby County Mayor to move services that benefit the entire county – like parks, libraries, museums, and arenas – to the larger county tax base.

This would lower the tax rate of Memphis taxpayers to something more in line with Germantown and Collierville, and finally, Memphians would not pay a disincentive to live within their city’s borders. In addition, the lower tax rate makes Memphis more attractive and competitive when compared to its suburban towns.

All of this is enough for Memphis to take its place in the top ranks of the U.S.’s most innovative cities, and to turn things around, that’s precisely where it has to be.