Who cares who is mayor pro tem?

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Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo.

I guess I haven’t been following Austin politics long enough, since my immediate reaction when somebody recently asked me whether the new Council would seek to oust Kathie Tovo from her position as mayor pro tem was bafflement. Why would they do that?

Most legislative bodies have a pro tempore position, and they typically don’t mean much. For instance, the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, despite being the fourth in line for the presidency, is typically whatever senile klansman from the majority party has been around the longest.

Apparently more people pay attention to the largely ceremonial position than I imagined. Notably other members of Council who might want the position themselves. The word on the street is that a group of Council members have moved to assemble a majority in support of making Delia Garza the next MPT. Garza, the first Latina member of Council, will thus become the first Latina to hold the distinct honor of running Council meetings in the mayor’s absence.

Here’s what the city charter says about the position: “The mayor pro tem shall act as mayor during the absence or disability of the mayor, and shall have power to perform every act the mayor could perform if present.”

If that sounds semi-important, remember that Austin has a weak mayor system. Unlike many other big city mayors, ours does not have a veto power and does not directly control city departments. His vote is equal to that of other Council members and while he does enjoy a larger staff than other CMs, the heads of city departments serve at the pleasure of the city manager.

So really, what is the mayor pro tem position all about? In an ideal world, it would be nothing more than a small honor conferred by Council members on a colleague whom they trust to ably and fairly run meetings when the mayor isn’t around. Tovo fits neatly into this framework, since she is the most tenured member of Council, knows Robert Rules of Order better than anybody else on the dais, is almost never late to meetings and is resolutely respectful of her colleagues, city staff and citizen speakers.

In the not-so-ideal world that we live in, the MPT position is a cheap way to stroke the ego of a Council member you may want a favor from in the future. There may also be those who want the position because a) they’re naturally competitive and like to win stuff, no matter how useless or b) they believe it will bolster their political standing and put them in a better position to run for higher office, such as mayor or c) they’re having a mid-political life crisis and are looking for something, anything, to get them out of the rut, like a dentist buying a Harley or a rock star taking up heroin.

All of this is to say that the fact that we’ll likely have a new mayor pro tem in the new year will change absolutely nothing about city policy.

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