Is a city manager best for us?

Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell, in his city charter-stipulated last term in office, has suggested city government change to a council-manager form, instead of its current strong mayor-council form.

According to Reference.com, “a city manager is an official appointed as the administrative manager of a city, in a council-manager form of city government. Called the chief administrative officer in some municipalities.

“Originating in Staunton, Va., in 1908 during the Progressive Era, the city manager form of government was created to remove city government from the power of the political parties, and place management of the city into the hands of an outside expert who was usually a business manager or engineer, with the hope that the city manager would remain neutral to city politics.

“Typical roles and responsibilities of a city manager include: supervising day-to-day operations of all city departments, supervising the department heads; preparing a draft city budget each year with options the council votes on; researching and making recommendations about topics of interest to the council; meeting with citizens and citizen groups to understand their needs better; providing executive leadership that encourages good performance by city workers; operating the city with a professional understanding of how all city functions operate together to their best effect.

“In rare cases, city managers have hire-fire authority over all city employees, though these decisions may be required to be approved by the council, and must comply with locally applicable civil service laws.

“A city manager, appointed by the council, ensures the mechanics and logistics of the councils decisions are coordinated and implemented, and the position is considered similar to that of a board-appointed CEO in a corporation.

“Three characteristics are unique to council-manager governments. The first is that all governmental authority rests with the city council. Second, the manager’s duties are codified and any authority possessed by the manager is officially endorsed. Third, no one member of the city council can dismiss the manager; rather, a vote of the entire council is required for dismissal. Under this government system, the position of mayor is either selected or elected by the city’s council, and has no executive authority.”

OK, with all the above stated, let’s talk about how a city manager form of government actually works.

Two of the towns in which I have been editor of the local newspaper have had city manager governments. Theoretically, having a professional city manager takes the petty politics out of operating government and allows for a well-qualified person in the job.

The issue, though, arises when members of city council won’t let a city manager run the city and attempt to intercede in the day-to-day operations of the city instead of acting as the city’s “board of directors.” The conflicts begin after a short honeymoon as council members begin to think they are mayors and begin trying to tell city employees what to do, when and how to do it, and, in general, usurp the city manager’s authority and responsibility.

If there is a strong city manager, the usurping council members and council butt heads and eventually the manager is dismissed, making it more difficult to hire the next city manager.

If the manager is a weak one, council members walk all over him/her and the overall good of the city fails due to council members attempting to care only for their represented parts of the city.

It should also be noted, unlike a mayor, the public has no authority over the city manager since he/she is not voted into office by the public. If the public does not like the job the city manager is doing, the public has no say in the matter and can only take their complaints to council members, a majority of which is needed to dismiss a city manager.

A city manager-council form of government, in my opinion, only works with a strong, professional manager, and a city council that knows its place as a legislative, not administrative, part of government, which from my observance is difficult for most councils to understand.

Contact Jim Smith at jsmith@newsandsentinel.com