Opinion > Star Staff
Surviving a council-manager form of government
By Bob Weir
One of the problems I have with politicians, especially those in the "executive branch," is that they often are legacy builders. In other words, they get into office and they begin to look for things to put their names on. Perhaps it's the president wanting his name on a healthcare bill, or a bridge to nowhere; or a local mayor wanting his name on a new library, city hall, or housing project.
It's all about ego and it always costs the taxpayers more of their hard-earned income. Government, from federal to state to local, has grown exponentially since the early days when there was no such thing as an income tax. We can't even imagine what it was like before bureaucrats began figuring out ways to dip into our pockets with a slow, but steady grip on everything we used to claim as our own. It could only be accomplished by a carefully contrived plan that assured us we wouldn't even feel the pinch. Yet, slowly, inexorably, the pinch has become a punch that has wage-earners stunned when they look at the long list of deductions chewing away their paychecks like locusts on a cornfield.
Most of us are familiar with the excesses of the national government, but pay scant attention to what's happening on the local scene. That's a shame because local politics has more of a direct influence on you than you might imagine. If you're not vigilant in your area, you might suddenly find a new apartment complex is being built that makes your town look like a section of the inner city has been transplanted into the neighborhood while you were sleeping. You might be on your way to work when you notice signs indicating a new road is going to be merged onto the thoroughfare, even though the current road is already a parking lot during the rush hours. Why were these new additions necessary, you might ask? How much more is it going to cost, and who gave anyone the right to add more spending to the budget? Well, maybe if you had been paying attention to the issues being bandied about in the last election, you'd know where your taxes are going, and how much more you may be ponying up soon. Sadly, the chances are that you didn't even know there was an election.
Well, here's a quick tutorial for those who are subject to taxation, while knowing nothing about representation. Most cities and towns operate under the council-manager form of government. In most areas, we elect a mayor and council members for two-year terms. An election is held each year, with a mayoral candidate and half the council up for election one year, and the other half of the council up the next. A majority vote of the council is needed to perform the legislative function of the municipality such as establishing policy, passing local ordinances, voting appropriations, and budget approvals. The town manager directs all the departments that serve the town, while functioning as the bridge between the town council, the residents and the staff. Moreover, he/she is responsible for accomplishing town council policies. This is where it can get complicated.
A town manager may be in office for several years and become very familiar with, and adept at administering to the needs of residents. However, given the ever-changing nature of the political scene, the manager is subject to the latest ideology every time a new council takes office. Yet, the reason this form of government was adopted more than a hundred years ago was to rid municipalities of machine politics that often abused power and became a pay-to-play patronage system. Also known as a spoils system, it is a practice in which a politician or a political party, after winning an election, gives "rewards" to those who assisted in the victory. Those rewards often translated into jobs on the payroll to keep their supporters happy and ready to work for them in the next campaign. Sometimes, rewards came in the form of lucrative construction contracts to companies that had been generous with their contributions during the campaign.
While all of this is going on, the guys and gals who go to work each day to pay for all this government are depending on elected and appointed leaders to do their jobs ethically, with a focus on prudent fiscal stewardship. All of the foregoing is precisely why it was vital to have an independent, politically impartial manager who could do the job effectively without constant interference from the latest office-holders who might be more interested in personal aggrandizement and political philosophy than in serving the community with sound management principles.