Introduction: The Coming Constitutional Crisis In City Government
After months of feuding between the Mount Vernon City Council and Mayor Richard Thomas, during the past week both sides have taken steps toward a legal showdown that could end up plunging the city into a full-blown constitutional crisis. Though this clash has been a long time in the making, stretching back to the acrimonious mayoral race that captivated the city’s attention last year, the immediate cause is the unprecedented challenge the Council mounted to the legal standing of several of Thomas’s Commissioners this past Thursday.
Fueled by a combustible mix of incompatible personalities and political principles, neither side is showing any signs that it is willing to back down. Indeed, both sides insist their unwillingness to compromise over this matter is grounded in legal principles derived directly from the City Charter, the city’s highest law. Sorting through the complex legal issues involved in this dispute will pose difficulties for seasoned lawyers, not to mention ordinary laypeople without a background in law. On the one side, the Mayor rightly maintains that the Charter gives him the sole authority to appoint the Commissioners who head up the city’s municipal departments. On the other, the Council declared several of those offices vacant after it determined the appointees didn’t comply with the residency laws set forth in the Charter.
Putting aside the question of who is right—for the moment—the stakes in this battle are quite high, no matter what decision is rendered, if the matter go before the courts. A loss in court for the Council will tarnish the reputation of individual members, at least in the eyes of residents who are inclined to believe its stance is motivated by the desire for political advantage. But even if they ultimately prevail in court, what remains to be seen is whether voters will punish Council members at the ballot box when they run for re-election next term.
For Mayor Thomas, who rode into office on a wave of popularity following his landslide victory over 4-time incumbent Ernest Davis, the stakes are much, much higher. Indeed, the dispute could turn into a matter of political life or death.
When you dig through the Charter, section by section, line by line, the reasons for this assessment are not hard to find. If the courts rule against the Mayor, the Council, in turn, could press for his removal from office on the ground that he failed to fulfill his obligation—as the city’s executive officer—to perform the due diligence that could’ve “prevented waste and injury to the property, funds and estate” of the city.
Risk of removal is further increased, still more, because the Mayor is also likely find himself in court, in the days ahead, after ignoring the Council’s request for documents relating to the demolition of a burnt-out structure located at 136 Park Avenue, as well as the subpoenas that were subsequently issued as part of its investigation into the selection of the contractor.
- The Institutional Roots Of The Current Conflict: A Brief Lesson in American Civics
In trying to make sense of the game of high-stakes brinksmanship our two branches of government are engaging in, the commentary voiced in the blogosphere makes one thing painfully evident: the Mayor’s defenders don’t appear to have enough knowledge to make an informed and independent judgment. With few exceptions, defenders have rushed in to dismiss the Council’s actions as much ado about nothing—a matter of he say, she say. For these modern-day political know-nothings, the current conflict is portrayed as an illegal intrusion on Mayor’s effort to exercise his executive power. This excerpt from the Mount Vernon Inquirer is a case in point. “This action is a direct threat to the continued health and prosperity of the City of Mount Vernon and contravention of the will of the people who voted Mayor Richard Thomas into office with an overwhelmingly high margin,” an anonymous writer gravely intoned.
But as the following analysis will show, the real problem is that both the Mayor and his supporters suffer from the misconception that the power of the executive is absolute, and knows no bounds.
In all fairness to those who hold this view, the city’s top lawyer, Corporation Counsel Lawrence Porcari, did much to lend it credence after issuing a legal opinion that dismissed the Council’s actions as an “act of bad faith, harassment and a desire to create political mischief”. When put in a broader historical perspective, however, there can be no doubt that the Council’s actions are in keeping with the system of checks and balances the Founding Fathers put into place to prevent the rise of an out-of-control executive.
It will be useful in setting the stage for the analysis that follows, to begin by revisiting the fundamentals of American civics.
As is well-known, our system of democratic governance was devised after our colonial forebears succeeded in overthrowing the rule of the British monarch, King George III. A major battlefront in the War for Independence, Mount Vernon is dotted with memorials to the soldiers who sacrificed life and limb to end the British Crown’s monarchical rule. To prevent such tyrannical power ever arising again, the Founding Fathers adopted a system of governance first proposed by the French political philosopher Montesquieu, which sought to prevent the rise of an all-powerful sovereign, by divesting the monarchy of its source of power—namely, the absolute power to make the law; enforce the law; and interpret the law. Under our system of government, these powers were instead divvied up between the 3 coordinate branches of government, the hallmark of America’s system of government: 1) the legislative branch, which enacts the law; 2) the executive branch, which sees to it that these laws are carried out; and 3) the judicial branch, which interprets the laws whenever there is a dispute about its meaning, intent and requirements.
For most of our nation’s history, the balance of power between the branches remained faithful to the framer’s original intent. However with the invention of nuclear weaponry, during the mid-20th century, fears spread among military planners that our original constitutional design could hamstring the nation’s ability to defend itself against a nuclear attack by the former Soviet Union, and in less than a generation’s time, the balance of power between the branches of government shifted in favor of the presidency. Not only did Congress cede much of its constitutional authority to declare war to the president, who led the national war effort as the country’s “commander-in-chief;” its oversight authority of the presidency was also weakened, as one president after another resisted Congressional efforts to monitor its decision-making by invoking the controversial doctrine of “executive privilege.” Though there were early precedents for its use, by the 20th century the doctrine of executive privilege gave presidents the power to shield their actions and decisions from Congress, opening up opportunities for false flag operations like the Gulf of Tonkin incident, as well as political machinations like the Watergate.