Is Austin Mayor Kirk Watson a 'strong mayor'? He's sure acting like one.
It has been a busy eight months for Mayor Kirk Watson.
He helped the city finalize a plan for the downtown light rail. He led the city during a winter storm and major blackouts, and he began the process of looking for a new city manager.
Since Watson took over with the help of interim City Manager Jesús Garza, he has shaken up City Hall — a promise he made to voters while campaigning last fall.
One could argue Watson is getting things done — and quickly. But some critics suggest it's been too much and often without the input of his fellow council members. They say he's operating like a "strong mayor," which is not how Austin's government is set up.
But Joshua Blank, a research director for the Texas Politics Project at UT Austin, says it's really too soon to tell and really the focus should be on what voters think.
"Most voters are not thinking about whether or not the mayor is fulfilling the city manager system we have versus a strong mayor system," Blank said. "They are thinking about whether the city is being run well."
So, what is a strong mayor system?
Under this type of government, there is no city manager; that position's responsibilities go to the mayor. This includes hiring, firing and building the budget. The mayor doesn't vote as part of the City Council, but can veto any measure it passes.
Austin operates as a council-manager system. The city's governing body is made up of 10 City Council members and the mayor. Together they enact local laws and policies. But the city’s day-to-day is run by the city manager — a person who is not elected, but appointed by the City Council. Under this system, the mayor cannot make decisions alone.
Voters had a chance to change to a strong mayor system in 2021, but overwhelmingly rejected the proposition.
So, while it can seem like Watson is acting alone, he and experts say that is not the case.
Steven Pedigo, a professor at UT's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said he believes Watson is acting as the system intended — helping city leaders find consensus.
“It is the role, I believe, or perhaps, of the agenda setter and convener in this system to be able to get his colleagues to arrive at some shared value about policy that will advance this city forward,” Pedigo said.
And Watson’s got some experience with that. This is not his first rodeo.
Watson first served as Austin mayor from 1997 until 2001, when he stepped down to run for state office.
Back then, he led the city through major changes with the consensus of the council. Watson was best known for his work transforming downtown Austin from a place that was mostly lawyer offices and banks to what it is today: a place where people can live, eat and shop.
Greg Canally, who leads the Austin Transit Partnership, worked in the city’s finance office back then, and remembers a lot of energy around what the City Council was doing.
"The City Council was active, and while they probably didn't agree on everything, there was a lot of progress on certain things," Canally said. "Especially in the late '90s going into the 2000s, that was a big deal, and thinking about what cities need to be like.”
Been there, done that
Fast forward two decades, Watson has returned to City Hall for a two-year term as Austin’s mayor. And he’s been at the helm of some controversial decisions, like the city’s recent partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety. State troopers helped patrol the city amid a staffing shortage at the Austin Police Department.
Throughout the partnership, some council members and residents said they were concerned about DPS troopers overpatrolling certain neighborhoods.
That DPS partnership was formed without a City Council vote. Its end in July was also done without the vote of the council. Watson says that's how it is supposed to go.
"He can lean on relationships and experience that no one else has."Joshua Blank, a research director for the Texas Politics Project at UT Austin
“While I played a prominent role — let’s say I played a strong role — ultimately the manager was the one who had to suspend that in consultation with the [police] chief," he said.
Watson has also been able to negotiate major projects off the dais, like the revised plan for the expansion of Interstate 35 and state funding for homelessness response. He also has not been afraid to express his opinion on divisive ideas, like his dissent for some parts of the Zilker Park Vision Plan, which was recently shelved.
It's not surprising to see Watson — who had been a mayor before and then a state senator — approach the job differently than others have.
"He can lean on relationships and experience that no one else has," Blank said.
If you ask Mayor Watson, he'll say he believes his job is to find consensus among a sometimes divided council. And right now, he thinks the city is operating better than it was before.
City Council meetings have gone from marathon-long sessions to often wrapping up before 5 p.m. Many votes take place before lunchtime.
"I approach this job within the form of government that we have, trying to achieve the goals of the people that elect me to be mayor of the whole city with some strength," Watson said.
Watson says he stands by decisions that have been criticized, like bringing in DPS troopers; sometimes things don’t work the way you expect.
“You are not going to meet everyone’s concept of perfection," he said. "It’s just not going to happen. You have to bring to this job, I think, the strength to know that, and the strength to say all right it's time to go ahead and move anyway.”
Whether he’s acting as a “strong mayor” in a weak mayor system, Watson’s future ultimately depends on how well the city is running — and if voters decide to re-elect him. Austinites will get that chance in November 2024.